Ryan Zinke and the Ghosts of Interior Past

Congratulations are certainly due to Montana’s lone congressman, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, for his appointment as President-elect Donald Trump’s secretary of Interior. It is a huge honor to be put in charge of the vast public lands domain and all that they represent and support. But with that honor comes the responsibility to ensure that America’s public lands are treated with respect and a commitment to preserve this unique legacy for generations yet to come. In that regard, it will be instructive for Zinke to remember James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s infamous secretary of Interior who resigned in shame and remains Time magazine’s No. 1 “worst cabinet members” of recent history.

Like Zinke, James Watt was a westerner, having been born and raised in Wyoming. And like Zinke, Watt believed in expanding extractive industries on the public’s resources. More coal mining? You bet; Watt quintupled coal leases in his short two years in office (1981-1983). More oil and gas drilling? Again, Watt’s agenda closely follows what Zinke has already said under the old and very tired rubric of “making America energy independent.”

When it came to listing endangered species, Watt held the worst record for listing the fewest number of species to receive Endangered Species Act protections and restoration for more than 20 years, which was only surpassed by George W. Bush’s Interior secretary, Dirk Kempthorne, who listed not a single specie in his 15-month tenure in 2007.

In short, Watt’s philosophy, if you can call it that, was summed up in his own words: “We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber.” If that sounds eerily like an echo of Zinke’s own view of how public lands should be managed, it is with good reason that so many public lands and environmental advocates find themselves viewing Zinke’s appointment with significant trepidation.

It’s no surprise so many who have worked so long to conserve our nation’s incredible natural resource legacy are so concerned when Trump says his administration’s goal “is to repeal bad regulations and use our natural resources to create jobs and wealth,” adding he believes Zinke “has built one of the strongest track records on championing regulatory relief, forest management, responsible energy development, and public lands,” and has “an attitude of doing whatever it takes to win.”

Where Zinke differs from Watt, however, also deserves attention. Zinke has said he is opposed to transferring ownership of federal lands. He felt so strongly that he resigned his position as a delegate to the Republican nominating convention when the Republican Party inserted a provision into its platform supporting the sale of public lands. We can only hope that when the vast amount of resource extraction pressure is exerted upon Zinke, he will stand unflinching in his previous conviction.

Should Zinke falter and bend to the enormous development and extraction pressures sure to be focused on him, the consequences are daunting. Those of us with long memories will easily recall the protests that greeted Watt whenever he made a public appearance. When he toured Zion National Park, climbers hung a huge banner from an inaccessible cliff face providing a striking visual protest. It said “Burn Watt, not Coal” and hung until Watt left the national park he was supposed to be preserving. Park rangers had to hire Montanan George Schunk, an expert climber, to remove it.

While a particularly striking example of the anti-Watt movement, it was by no means a singularity in the hundreds of protests intended to drive Watt out. Under such intense scrutiny and pressure, Watt did finally resign in disgrace in 1983.

Make no mistake, the “fierce green fire” that Aldo Leopold described in the eyes of a dying wolf he had shot as a young man is alive and well. Should Ryan Zinke forget his Montana roots, he will be mercilessly hounded. Over a million people signed a petition for Watt’s resignation – and that was in the era before computers, social media and the internet made widespread communication, organization and protest much easier.

It’s worth remembering that we are 34 years down the line since Watt disgraced the office and abdicated his duty as secretary of Interior. In those long decades, our public lands have suffered the abuses of ongoing resource extraction activities that show no sign of easing. The challenges facing Zinke are enormous. We can only wish him well and assure him the “fierce green fire” will be watching.

More articles by:

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.

December 17, 2018
What is Neoliberalism?
James Haught
Evangelicals Vote, “Nones” Falter
Martin Billheimer
Late Year’s Hits for the Hanging Sock
Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas
Kerri Kennedy
This Holiday Season, I’m Standing With Migrants
Mel Gurtov
Weaponizing Humanitarian Aid
Thomas Knapp
Lame Duck Shutdown Theater Time: Pride Goeth Before a Wall?
George Wuerthner
The Thrill Bike Threat to the Elkhorn Mountains
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Selfhood and Her Ability to Act in the Public Domain: Resilience of Nadia Murad
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
On the Killing of an Ash Tree
Graham Peebles
Britain’s Homeless Crisis
Louis Proyect
America: a Breeding Ground for Maladjustment
Steve Carlson
A Hell of a Time