Rep. Ryan Zinke, a congressman from Montana and Donald Trump’s pick for the next Secretary of the Interior, said some encouraging things in his Senate hearing on January 18. First, he acknowledged that the climate is changing and that “man has had an influence,” disavowing Trump’s notorious statement that climate change is a hoax. Second, he stated in strong terms his opposition to divestiture of the lands and resources owned by the federal government, declaring that “I am absolutely against transfer and sale of public lands. I can’t be more clear.” Third, he reiterated his support for continuing congressional financing of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has enabled federal, state, and local governments to acquire millions of acres of land for recreational purposes since its creation in 1965.
Each of these positive sentiments comes with significant caveats attached to them, however. Let’s start with climate change. Zinke’s agreement that human activity has had “an influence” on climate is light years away from a full-throated acceptance of the scientific consensus of the critical role that greenhouse gas emissions from activities such as fossil fuel consumption have had in disrupting the climate. When pressed to elaborate, Zinke referred to “debate” on “what that influence is and what we can do about it.”
That response is in line with the apparently well-coached party line position of other Trump cabinet nominees – including Scott Pruitt, Rex Tillerson, and Rick Perry – on climate change. That position is to back away from the embarrassing and indefensible assertion that climate change is not occurring or that human activity plays no role in it, while at the same time emphasizing continuing uncertainty on the degree of human influence, the scope of the problem, and the value of doing anything about it.
Zinke’s refusal to commit to address, prepare for, or respond to climate change in any way also took the form of another standard GOP climate change disclaimer, as he stated that “I’m not an expert in this field.” Presumably to help him get up to speed on the issue, he suggested that the U.S. Geological Survey engage in “objective science” to clear up the debate. That phrase sounds suspiciously like “sound science,” which opponents of environmental regulation have used for years to describe scientific information that supports policies with which they disagree. It also echoes Zinke’s own pronouncement in 2014 that climate change is not “proven science.”
If the nominee really does intend to study the problem, he should start with the “objective” facts that each of the last three years has been the warmest on record and that 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have all occurred since 2000. That’s quantifiable information. He should also study the correlation between greenhouse gas emissions and climbing temperatures, rather than prioritize greater fossil fuel development on the lands managed by the Interior Department.
Zinke’s position on selling federal lands also bears watching. Just since the new Congress began earlier this month, Zinke, in his role as Montana’s member of the House of Representatives, voted in favor of a bill that, by redefining the costs to the nation of disposing of public lands and resources, would have made it easier for the federal government to do so. Asked if he would vote for that bill again today, Zinke said no. What changed in the last two weeks? And what might change in the next two if he is confirmed?
Support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund is surely welcome, but Zinke’s focus seems to be on addressing the maintenance backlog on Interior’s land systems rather than adding to the federal land base. While adequate funding to address deteriorating infrastructure is sorely needed, Zinke should not forget that the Congress that enacted the Fund made it clear that a substantial portion should be allocated to purchasing inholdings, acquisition of lands for recreational use near urban centers, and support of state recreational land acquisitions. Further, maintenance entails more than fixing broken water fountains.
Several other aspects of Zinke’s testimony also merit scrutiny. Perhaps most troubling was his apparent welcoming of efforts by the new president to reverse President Obama’s national monument designations under the Antiquities Act. Speaking as if such reversals are already a fait accompli, Zinke remarked, “It certainly will be interesting to see whether the president has the authority to nullify a monument.”
To date, presidents of both parties have designated 157 national monuments under the act. No president has ever even attempted to reverse a designation by one of his predecessors. Congress even converted 30 national monuments to national parks. For Zinke to speculate cavalierly about the scope of presidential authority to overturn monument designations is extremely troubling.
Also troubling is Zinke’s apparent view that the “preponderance” of federal lands should be committed to multiple uses, including energy development, and that the category of “lands that deserve special recognition” and which are dedicated primarily to preservation or recreation is a narrow one. Congress has had different priorities, designating 80 million acres of land as national parks and another nearly 90 million acres as national wildlife refuges. In addition, Congress has carved out almost 110 million acres of land for preservation as pristine wilderness across all federal land systems, including lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, whose other lands are subject to a multiple use mandate. These lands are hardly a drop in the federal bucket and belie the suggestion that multiple use is or should be the default characterization, with preservation and dominant, non-extractive use being confined to limited pockets of the federal land base.
Among the main goals that Zinke enumerated for his tenure as Interior Secretary are restoring trust in the agency by working closely with local communities, reducing the Park Service’s maintenance backlog, and giving park rangers and managers increased flexibility. These may be laudable goals, but they suggest that Zinke is missing a crucial aspect of the stewardship of the nation’s public lands and resources that is the Interior Department’s core responsibility. The Department should focus on protecting the ecological integrity of the lands and resources placed in its trust and on ensuring their capacity to continue to function as they have for millennia in the face of unprecedented challenges, such as those posed by climate change.
Zinke depicts himself as a Theodore Roosevelt conservationist. Roosevelt once cautioned, “Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.” One hopes that Zinke takes that advice to heart as he prepares to supervise management of millions of acres of some of America’s most treasured lands.