Some in Washington were relieved when President Donald Trump announced he would nominate Ryan Zinke as interior secretary. Zinke did not favor selling off or giving away the federal government’s vast land holdings in the western United States, a vein of right-wing extremism to which Trump might have been thought susceptible. Zinke was a congressman from Montana, a place with a history of mining and drilling but also reverence for spectacular natural features. That much was known. His clumsy arrogance was less visible.
Now, after less than two years, Zinke is leaving under an ethical cloud. His policy legacy is that of an aggressive opponent of environmental stewardship. No one who values America’s outdoor heritage will regret his departure.
His Interior Department has broken new ground in hostility toward land conservation, radically shrinking two national monuments in southern Utah: Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears. These spectacular, irreplaceable landscapes were taken out of the conservation pipeline that had developed since the 1906 Antiquities Act, in which precious areas begin as national monuments and eventually obtain higher levels of protection.
Zinke oversaw a push to fast-track drilling on public lands and withdraw Obama-era climate rules on methane emissions from oil and gas production. The Interior Department justified the rollback by aggressively discounting the importance of future climate problems. These moves vastly outweighed small steps to enhance environmental protection.
Then there were the ethical problems. A sketchy Montana land deal raised eyebrows — and has been referred to the Justice Department. Questions swirled after Zinke held up approval of a tribal casino in Connecticut, after a meeting with MGM Resorts International officials who would have had to compete with it. Zinke was one of several Trump Cabinet members whose expensive travel habits and interactions with political contributors got him in trouble.
Perhaps no episode better expresses Zinke’s contempt for the public than the cynical show he put on around his offshore drilling plan. The Trump administration moved to open the coastlines to drilling, even off states that strongly object. But Zinke flew to Tallahassee to offer Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, a special exception from the rule. The transparent motive was to help Scott in his Senate race in a state deeply opposed to offshore drilling. No other governor got such special treatment, because Zinke did not feel compelled to treat everyone else as well as a Republican who could use the political favor.
In the Trump era, there is always concern that the next appointment will be worse. It would have to be execrable to create any nostalgia for the Zinke era.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE WASHINGTON POST