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Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again

If looting the Treasury and pillaging the nation’s non-renewable resources was the goal of Ryan Zinke, Montana’s former congressman appointed secretary of the Interior by President Trump, he’s doing a heck of a job. But after a year in office, the scandals, abuse of public resources and over-the-top pandering to extractive industries have put Zinke on the hot seat time and again, with a host of new problems boiling over just last week. For Montanans, a once-great chance to showcase our state’s dedication to stewardship of public lands and waters has turned into a huge ongoing embarrassment.

Late last week the Guardian broke the story that Kathleen Benedetto, Zinke’s appointee as “senior adviser,” has had twice as many meetings with representatives of extractive industries as conservation interests. While it’s certainly to be expected that those in charge of the millions of acres of lands and waters the Bureau of Land Management oversees would meet with the various interests in how our public lands are managed — or mismanaged — the decisions emanating from those meetings have definitely favored resource extraction over conservation.

In Benedetto’s own words: “A large amount of federal estate is being managed for conservation purposes” — which she says limits other uses. Tough to argue with that, since conservation has always had an uphill struggle against those who would plunder public lands for private profit.

Unfortunately in Benedetto’s case, conservation appears to come dead last as a national priority. She was instrumental in the decision to abdicate the sage grouse conservation plan in favor of oil and gas extraction. And then there’s the recent decision to rescind an Obama-era decision to not reissue leases to Twin Metals Minnesota — a Chilean-owned mining corporation — to open a copper and nickel mine on the border of the famed Boundary Waters Wilderness Area. After a series of meetings with mining representatives and their lobbyists, Benedetto ignored pleas from conservationists over concerns about the impacts such a large-scale mining operation would have on the vast inter-connected waterways and the positive economic benefits they generate.

Considering the “perpetual pollution” from mining operations Montana now struggles with, one may have expected Zinke to overrule Benedetto. But that didn’t happen since, as becomes clearer every day, the Trump administration is all about plundering as many public resources as quickly as possible and the future be damned.

If this reeks of the same industry-led assault resulting in extreme downsizing of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bear’s Ears national monuments, there’s good reason. The New York Times went to court to obtain a series of emails and memos that show oil, gas and coal interest communications that actually wound up defining the final boundaries. This despite Zinke promising that “everyone’s voice is heard” and telling reporters that: “We also have a pretty good idea of, certainly, the oil and gas potential — not much! So Bears Ears isn’t really about oil and gas.”

Finally, there’s last week’s revelation that Zinke is spending $139,000 to replace two doors in his office, which raised eyebrows even in big-spending Washington, D.C. Zinke claims he didn’t know about it. Then again, he’s already under investigation by the Inspector General for excessive travel expenses, use of planes, going to political events and meetings with campaign donors, so given his track record on truthfulness and ethics, one might question his denial.

Recalling the giants of public policy Montana has sent to Washington, such as Lee Metcalf and Mike Mansfield, having Ryan Zinke debase both their ethical and conservation legacies is truly a shameful tragedy for all Montanans.

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

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