Washington • Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke keeps a chest stocked with knives in his sixth-floor office.
It’s not for protection — he has a security detail for that. Rather, he says, it’s a metaphor for the sort of government inefficiency that he wants to eliminate in running the 70,000-employee department responsible for public lands, tribal interests and endangered species, among other charges.
There are 23 knives in Zinke’s collection, one for each year he served as a Navy SEAL, and he has a story for every one. But the kicker is his favorite tale: The last knife he was issued is almost identical to the first. But it took his entire SEAL career for the military to figure out the initial knife was the perfect fit for his team’s missions.
He sees the same problems confronting Interior: Processes rooted in bureaucracy rather than reality. Zinke plans to use his military experience as a blueprint for reorganizing the department to better serve the public and manage the lands and resources it oversees.
“We need to work in harmony,” Zinke said during a recent interview. “Right now, we’re not.”
The former Montana Republican congressman eyes big changes that could include moving agency headquarters out of Washington and into the interior. Among other sites, he’s talked about relocating the Bureau of Land Management to Salt Lake City or Denver, closer to the tens of millions of acres the agency manages in the West.
It could also mean forming joint teams to work across agencies to streamline decisions among the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.
It would be a reorganization similar to what the U.S. military saw in 1983 with a change in the command structure, Zinke says.
“There’re lessons learned you can take from the military,” says the secretary, who notes he wants to “shore up the front lines” of employees in the field, be they park rangers or wildlife biologists.
“Our front lines are frustrated,” he said. “The previous administration was focused on consolidating and bringing more power to D.C. We’ve gotten so bureaucratic. That is frustrating.”
Zinke has caused his own frustrations, particularly in the environmental community, which feels sidelined and ignored so far in his tenure after a short-lived honeymoon.
The main driver of that has been a review of national monuments designated since 1996, as ordered by President Donald Trump at the request of Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and fellow Utah officials. Trump is expected to visit the Beehive State in early December to announce large-scale cuts to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
“Secretary Zinke is on track to go down as the worst secretary of Interior in modern history,” said Jen Ujifusa, legislative director at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “From day one, his priority has been to undermine the legacy of America’s public lands, whether ignoring overwhelming public input by recommending Trump shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, or by taking us 100 years in the past with his retrograde dirty fuels policies. He may be trying to run DOI like a military outfit, but it’s obvious he’s abandoned his post.”
Zinke insists he’s on the side of preserving land that needs protection as well as fixing a gigantic backlog of maintenance and making the experience better for millions of visitors to public lands.
The view from the top
On a recent Saturday, Zinke ushered visitors outside his office suite to the veranda. While visitors gasp at the views of the gleaming Washington Monument, the Capitol and majestic Lincoln Memorial, Zinke says he sees something different.
“I see an elevator problem,” Zinke says, pointing at the Washington Monument, which has been closed to the public because of its broken lift. “I see a roof problem,” he says, with a nod to the Lincoln Memorial. “I see another roof problem,” he says of the Jefferson Memorial.
On a hill above Arlington National Cemetery, Zinke notes Arlington House, the former home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that rises above the nation’s premier military cemetery.
“It’s falling apart,” Zinke says. “It’s a national disgrace that we’d let hallowed ground go like that.”
These all are glimpses of Interior’s $12 billion backlog of maintenance that has haunted Interior secretaries for several administrations — and one that Zinke says he wants, finally, to tackle head-on.
This goal is behind his controversial proposal to more than double entrance fees during peak times at the nation’s most popular national parks, including four of Utah’s five: Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands and Zion. (Capitol Reef was excluded from the plan.) The extra money, the secretary says, will help tamp down some of the mountainous maintenance needs.
But Congress instantly pushed back on that idea, with Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, saying he’ll hold hearings and possibly draft legislation to thwart it.
Overall, though, Bishop — a sharp critic of the Interior Department during the Obama administration — gives Zinke good marks for his first nine months in office.
“I’m pleasantly surprised by what he has done,” Bishop said. “And it makes just a world of difference to have an agency that is now told to cooperate with Congress and try and work with us. ... It’s like an entire new day. And that is so enjoyable that we can actually talk with people at Interior knowing they are doing their best to give us the right information.”
Zinke has been hampered by the slow process to ramp up his team, Bishop says, but he expects big achievements and applauds plans to reorganize the department even if he isn’t the first to set that goal.
“But he is bringing in a concerted determination to make it happen and some of it is based on his military experience but also it’s something that has always been a common thread that reformers have wanted to take place,” Bishop said.
Not that Zinke’s tenure so far has been without its own controversies.
Flights of fancy?
The Interior Department’s inspector general has launched an investigation of the secretary’s use of three charter flights instead of riding commercial planes. And the U.S. Office of Special Counsel is probing whether Zinke violated a law against using his government position for political reasons by speaking to Las Vegas’ Golden Knights NHL team, which is owned by a major campaign donor.
The Western Values Project filed a lawsuit to gain access to documents showing that Zinke’s wife, Lolita, had frustrated Interior staff with her requests when she traveled with him on official business.
And then there was the flag.
The Washington Post reported that Zinke has ordered staff to fly his official secretarial flag on the roof of the Interior Department headquarters when he is in the office, a move that previous secretaries have not taken. (Zinke notes there’s a rule dating back to 1849 to fly the flag in that manner.)
Environmental groups had held out some initial hope for Zinke, noting that as a congressman he broke with Republican colleagues to oppose selling off public lands or transferring them to state or local control. But the grace period didn’t last long.
“There’s a Grand Canyon-scale chasm between Zinke’s conservation rhetoric and reality,” said Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society. “This administration is hellbent on selling out our public lands to private mining, drilling and logging interests. By attacking national monuments, trying to open up the Arctic Refuge for drilling and undermining conservation laws, Secretary Zinke has succeeded in galvanizing opposition from a broad, bipartisan army of Americans — and these people love the outdoors and will fight to protect our public lands.”
Kate Kelly, who served as a senior adviser to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell during the Obama administration and is now the public lands director at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said that Zinke’s initial rhetoric hasn’t matched his actions.
“He came into the job saying the right things about balanced land management and keeping public lands public,” Kelly said. “Instead, we have an Interior secretary who says he wants a conservation legacy equal to that of Teddy Roosevelt but is concurrently dismantling, piece by piece, America’s public lands.”
The national monument review will lead to the largest rollback of protections for public lands in U.S. history, Kelly predicts, adding that Zinke is “effectively handing the keys” to oil, gas and coal companies.
Focusing on fixing aging roads, sewer systems and other needs at national parks is a noble goal, Kelly says, but notes that Zinke backed Trump’s austere budget that called for a 12 percent cut to the Interior Department.
“My hunch is, once you look under the hood of this goal, there won’t be a lot of there, there,” she says.
For his part, Zinke says it’s always a challenge to make everyone happy when it comes to public lands. He says his mission is to be the best possible steward of public lands, protecting sensitive areas but also ensuring public access, hunting, fishing and extraction of resources where appropriate.
He says there are two extremes in the public-lands debate, those who believe the feds mismanaged lands and blocked public use and others who believe lands should be seen but not used. When it comes to some environmental groups, he says he has “marveled at their passion.”
“They would rather watch the forest burn down than harvest one dead tree,” he said. “That is as extreme [a view] as that the federal government should have no stake” in owning lands at all.
The secretary, who rode a horse to work on his first day in office, says he hopes to strike a compromise and insists he’s trying to model President Teddy Roosevelt, commonly referred to as the father of public lands.
Roosevelt, a Republican, had the will and fortitude to protect vast swaths of land, Zinke says, “and we have to have the courage to protect our lands for the next 100 years.”