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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.

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

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