In May 2017, Ryan Zinke, the 52nd United States secretary of the Interior, traveled to Utah on a four-day fact-finding mission. A Montana native and former Navy SEAL, Zinke carries himself with the sort of distinctly American brand of swagger that Donald Trump, who favors Cabinet picks “out of central casting,” must have swooned over: a macho trifecta of cowboy, soldier and lifelong jock. He’s tall, and his voice, an adenoidal purr, has just a hint of John Wayne. He could wear a Stetson without looking ridiculous.
Zinke had come to Utah to tour a pair of national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase – Escalante, as part of a broader review ordered by the Trump administration. Prior to the visit, conservatives had derided the monuments as an example of federal overreach, mockingly referring to Bears Ears as a “midnight monument” because the designation came at the end of Barack Obama’s term. In fact, achieving protected status for Bears Ears – 1.3 million acres that had been inhabited by native peoples for “hundreds of generations,” per Obama’s proclamation – had been years in the making, representing the work of environmental groups and an extraordinary coalition of five sovereign Native nations that historically have not always worked together as allies.
Though Zinke’s office had portrayed his visit as an opportunity to hear from all sides of the debate, meetings with opponents of the monuments dominated his schedule. One of the only exceptions came in Salt Lake City, at the office of the Bureau of Land Management, where Zinke met with tribal leaders who had lobbied for the creation of Bears Ears. The tense meeting took place in a small room, with Zinke’s team and the tribal representatives facing one another behind tables only a few feet apart. Zinke began by insisting that some of his earlier remarks about the tribes and the monument had been misunderstood – “a truly lame explanation” that “fell flat,” one of the attendees, Charles Wilkinson, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School who specializes in Indian and public-land law, later noted in a memo obtained by The New York Times.
Zinke soldiered on, Wilkinson noted, with a series of “ill-informed” questions meant to chip away at the pro-monument side of the debate. But, as tribal leaders offered firm, reasoned responses, Zinke “asked fewer questions and they were no longer biting or aggressive.” In a speech after the meeting, Zinke displayed an uncharacteristic humility, describing the tribes as fighting to preserve their culture, contrary to claims by Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch that the
Native Americans had been “manipulated” by special interests.
By the end of the year, however, Trump announced he would be shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 85 percent and 50 percent, respectively – some 2 million acres in total.
The Department of the Interior oversees 20 percent of the land mass of the U.S., with 70,000 employees and nine bureaus, including Indian Affairs, Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey – a sweeping but widely misunderstood portfolio with outsize impact on domestic energy production, the environment, endangered species and an $887 billion outdoor-recreation industry. Zinke has proved willing to use the power of his office to advance long-standing Republican-policy goals with militaristic discipline and, to critics like Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune, an unprecedented ferocity. “It’s the standard Republican playbook on steroids,” says Brune, “because the secretary has been so aggressive on so many fronts, doing things no other Interior secretary has ever done, with a side of mean-spiritedness.”
A 56-year-old fifth-generation Montanan, Zinke showed up for his first day at the office wearing blue jeans, sunglasses and a black cowboy hat, and riding a horse named Tonto. Since then, he’s drawn widespread condemnation from climate scientists, conservationists, Indian tribes, government ethicists and outdoor enthusiasts, to name a few. Of the latter group, Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, has been one of the most outspoken. In December, the home page of his company’s website was replaced with a message to its customers: “The President Stole Your Land.” In denouncing Zinke’s “illegal move,” Patagonia described it as “the largest elimination of protected land in American history.”
The monument rollback was Zinke’s highest-profile action in office – until January, when the DOI announced it would open nearly the entire U.S. coastline to offshore oil and natural-gas extraction. The department had already started to undo Obama-era regulations on fracking, coal mining and methane emissions from oil and gas wells, as well as safety rules surrounding underwater drilling put in place after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, the worst oil spill in American history. As Zinke explained at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February, he sees maximal domestic fossil-fuel production as part of his mandate. “I don’t want our kids to have to fight on foreign shores for energy we have here,” Zinke said, adding that “public lands belong to the people and not special interests, first and foremost.” By “special interests,” of course, he meant environmental groups, not the fossil-fuel industry.
What else? Zinke has neutered the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, one of the oldest wildlife-conservation laws on the books, and recently proposed a revision to the Endangered Species Act that would weigh the federal protection of plants and animals facing extinction against the economic interests of industry. He led a failed proposal to more than double the entrance fees at some of the most popular national parks in the country, including the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone, to $70 per vehicle. He has backed massive staffing and budget cuts at the DOI (4,000 employees, $1.6 billion in funding); in a speech to the National Petroleum Council in September, he estimated that 30 percent of the bureaucracy he’d inherited was “not loyal to the flag.” In January, 10 of the 12 members of the nonpartisan National Park System Advisory Board resigned en masse after Zinke declined to meet with them, something no previous Interior secretary had done.
Ultimately, Zinke plans to enact the largest restructuring of the DOI in its history, moving thousands of workers, and the headquarters of entire bureaus, from Washington to regional locations – and in the process, disrupting the power and access of a bureaucracy in which a third of its career employees have been deemed to have failed a loyalty test. Zinke put it differently in his speech before the petroleum board. “I really can’t change the culture without changing the structure,” he said. “Push your generals where the fight is.”
Prior to the appointment of Zinke, the most controversial U.S. secretary of the Interior in living memory was most likely James Watt, whose short but eventful tenure spanned the first two years of the Reagan administration. William Greider, writing in this magazine in 1983, described Watt as a “twisted man” with a “rip-and-ruin view of our natural resources, land, water, parks and wilderness.” A fundamentalist Christian, Watt told Congress, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns,” and described his job as “to follow the Scriptures, which call upon us to occupy the land.” Watt would eventually resign after quipping about the diversity of an advisory board meant to review government coal-leasing policies: “I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple.”
Nearly two years into the Trump presidency, Watt’s comment feels positively quaint, like an old Lenny Bruce record, or Elvis’ hips on The Ed Sullivan Show. But the problem – or classic bit of legerdemain, depending on your point of view – that occurs when the clownish James Watt figure sits inside the Oval Office is that the brain-freezing volume of daily outrage produced by Trump allows secretaries like Zinke to quietly go about their business.
Zinke grew up in a resort town in northwest Montana called Whitefish, a onetime railroad hub once nicknamed Stumptown. His mother worked in real estate, his father was a plumber, and Zinke, the middle of three children, played football in high school and was elected class president. He went to the University of Oregon on a football scholarship, majoring in geology, and planned to train for a job as an underwater geologist after graduation. But at an Oregon football game, an alumnus who’d gone on to become a Navy admiral persuaded him to consider SEAL training instead. Zinke made it through the intensive six-month boot camp on his first go, in 1985, and in the early Nineties, he joined the elite SEAL Team 6.
After a 23-year military career, serving in Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and Southeast Asia, Zinke returned to his hometown. He had a wife and three children, and he told the Whitefish Pilot that he was considering running for office – though, the article continued, “as a military man, Zinke said he feels he shouldn’t be left or right, Republican or Democrat. ‘I should be a Montanan,’ ” he said.
That feeling didn’t last very long. In 2009, he won a seat in the Montana Senate as a Republican; three years later, he started a stridently anti-Obama Super PAC, Special Operations for America, which attempted to Swift-boat the president by insisting he had taken too much credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden. Ironically, Zinke himself would later be criticized for sending out a fundraising e-mail in 2014 with the subject line “Who killed Osama bin Laden?” and a section of the text reading, “I spent 23 years as a Navy SEAL and served as a Team Leader on SEAL Team 6 – the team responsible for the mission to get Osama bin Laden.” The only problem was, the bin Laden raid took place three years after Zinke’s retirement. “If you read it carefully, it does not say that I killed bin Laden,” Zinke insisted in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. (Zinke declined an interview request for this story.)
The first hints of Zinke’s future ride on the Trump train came in 2012, with his decision to serve as the running mate of truly bizarre Montana gubernatorial candidate Neil Livingstone, a national-security consultant and frequent contributor to Soldier of Fortune. Livingstone played up his mercenary background on his campaign website, bragging he had “dined at gangster clubs in Moscow,” been “paid in stacks of hundred-dollar bills” and been a guest “on a yacht full of hookers in Monte Carlo.”
“When Zinke ran as Livingstone’s running mate, everyone was like, ‘What the hell?’ ” a Montana political insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells me. “It just seemed so out of line.” In one campaign photo, the two men posed back-to-back in suits, brandishing handguns 007-style. They would finish fifth out of seven candidates in the GOP primary, with a little less than nine percent of the vote.
Two years later, though, Zinke bounced back, handily winning a race for Montana’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. After Trump’s election, Donald Trump Jr., an avid hunter who had taken a strong interest in the DOI, promoted the one-term congressman to his father. David J. Hayes, who served as deputy secretary of the Interior in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, says, “I think a lot of us were hopeful that he would be moderate.” Zinke describes himself as a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican” and had resigned his seat as a delegate at the 2016 GOP convention in protest of a call to transfer federal lands to the states, an unpopular position in Montana, where national parks and tourism are a major part of the state’s identity and economy. “So many of us viewed that as a good thing, that he would not want to privatize,” says Hayes. “But since coming to office, he’s been a major disappointment.”
The issue of public lands has been a sticking point for conservatives in Western states since the 1970s, when the Sagebrush Rebellion, a grassroots uprising of ranchers, farmers, and mining and timber interests, began a coordinated campaign against federal land ownership. The election of Reagan, an ideological ally, had a cooling effect, but hostilities recommenced under Obama, when Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy engaged in an armed standoff with law-enforcement officials in 2014 after refusing to pay fees owed to the federal government for allowing his cattle to graze on public land. Two years later, Bundy’s son Ammon led an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon to protest the prosecution of a pair of local ranchers for arson on federal land. One of the militants was shot and killed by a federal agent during the 41-day occupation. It’s within this context that Trump’s pick for Interior secretary assumed an outsize importance for a select group within the Republican Party, while mostly gliding under the radar for everyone else.
Joel Clement, an ecologist who joined the DOI in 2011 as director of the Office of Policy Analysis, where he focused on resilience and adaptation related to climate change, has become the department’s highest-profile whistle-blower. Soon after Zinke took office, Clement came to believe that his new boss’ mission was “to hobble the agency.” When Trump nullified Obama’s executive order on resilience preparedness in the Arctic, Clement and other DOI insiders were baffled: In Alaska, there was wide, bipartisan support for the measures. “Then I realized, ‘Oh, he’s just reversing every Obama executive order,’ ” Clement says. “And I realized my core work – seeing if we could get people out of harm’s way in the Arctic – was in danger.”
Clement kept working until October 2017. Several months earlier, he had been abruptly reassigned to a job in the office responsible for collecting royalty checks from fossil-fuel interests. The message could not have been clearer: “Anyone who’d been good at their job in the Obama years therefore was connected to Obama and had to be moved out,” Clement says. After his reassignment, he hired a lawyer and went public. He still hears from former colleagues on the inside. “What’s chilling about it is how uncomfortable they feel even communicating outside of the agency,” he says. “They are all looking over their shoulder. Nobody wants to have a target on their back.”
Meanwhile, there’s been a consistent swampiness to Zinke’s political appointees: His deputy secretary, David Bernhardt, was previously an oil-and-gas-industry lobbyist; one of the department’s top lawyers, Daniel Jorjani, previously served as an adviser to Charles Koch; Todd Wynn, the DOI’s director of Intergovernmental and External Affairs, worked for Koch Industries-backed think tanks and power-industry trade organization the Edison Electric Institute. Six months into Zinke’s tenure, the Western Values Project, a Whitefish-based watchdog group, counted among the DOI’s political nominees
14 former lobbyists, 14 Trump campaign workers, 34 extractive-industry veterans “and no one from the outdoor-recreation industry.”
Having marginalized the experts, Zinke has moved to reverse federal protections on fracking on public lands and lifted an Obama-era moratorium on coal leasing on public lands – where 40 percent of the coal used in the U.S. is produced. But the offshore-drilling announcement might be the move that has alarmed environmentalists the most. In addition to the risk of another Deepwater Horizon, the impact to the climate presented by expanded offshore drilling is enormous. Richard Steiner, a marine biologist based in Anchorage, Alaska, says estimates have placed 90 billion barrels of oil and 400 trillion cubic feet of natural gas offshore. “That would put tens of billions of tons of carbon into the global atmosphere,” he says, “and we can’t afford that.”
And yet, the drilling announcement was almost immediately thrown into legal jeopardy when Zinke, bafflingly and apparently unilaterally – reports from Washington had Trump angry at his move – offered an exemption to Florida after meeting with the Republican governor, Rick Scott. When the news broke, some of the complaints, Hayes says, came from the industry: “They’re mad at Zinke because it was such an arbitrary and unreasoned decision. How could Interior not grant the wish of any other governor now?”
Steiner, though, suggests the seeming chaos is part of a master plan. A week before the drilling expansion was announced, he spoke with a senior member of the DOI – “a political appointee, not a holdover from the Obama administration” – who told him the plan was “to open everything up, which they did, but that they’re willing to pull back in a number of areas based on public pressure. So the sense I get is they’re taunting the American public. They announce that they’re throwing everything open, cause a commotion, create a public backlash – and then look benevolent when they partially withdraw from their initial proposal.”
Some believe the always ambitious Zinke already has an eye cocked to the presidency. The normally media-averse secretary has given several interviews that aired in Iowa this year (not a state known for its significant federal-land holdings), and a polling firm has been testing his name recognition in the state. “Zinke is less bumbling and corrupt than someone like Scott Pruitt, so it can seem like he’s being clever,” Clement says. “But he has a very thin understanding about what the agency does. He’s there for the photo ops and to carry out Trump’s agenda. There’s a Heritage Foundation wish list, and he’s ticking through it without any understanding of how it works.”
A week before Christmas, I visit Bears Ears with Vaughn Hadenfeldt, the president of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a local conservation group. Shortly after Trump announced the revocation of much of Bears Ears’ monument status, Friends of Cedar Mesa joined seven other plaintiffs, including Patagonia, to sue the Trump administration in order to halt the move. Hadenfeldt, a lanky 67-year-old with gray hair that spills past his shoulders and a tufting, wizardly goatee, has been leading expeditions in the area for more than three decades. We meet near his home in Bluff, Utah (population 296), which abuts the pre-Zinke boundaries of Bears Ears, and head out for a tour in his pickup truck.
When Zinke visited Bears Ears in 2017, he flew over the monument in a Black Hawk helicopter (“It’s been a while since I’ve been in a Black Hawk without people shooting at me,” he quipped to the press). While elected officials in Utah were unified in their hatred of the monument, Native Americans struggled to have their voices heard. “It’s the first national monument that Native Americans ever pushed to create, and the first monument that we’re going to defend,” says Shaun Chapoose, chair of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee. “If you thought Standing Rock was big, just wait.”
Hadenfeldt says that Friends of Cedar Mesa, the only environmental group Zinke met with, got about 30 minutes. When Hadenfeldt told him conservative estimates placed 100,000 archaeological sites within the monument, Zinke asked how many had been professionally recorded. Hadenfeldt said that only eight percent of the land had been surveyed and that so far about 30,000 sites had been recorded. “Then that’s what you have,” he recalls Zinke saying.
“That’s how the meeting started,” Hadenfeldt says. “I didn’t feel so good after that.”
He steers his truck up the face of a mesa, via a precarious series of dirt switchbacks. The top of the mountain is oddly lush, an old-growth forest of squat, bushy junipers. “So we’re in the 6,000-foot range now,” Hadenfeldt says. “This is kind of my center of the universe.” Eventually we park at the edge of a sere landscape of sandstone canyons and rock pilings. We find grinding and hammer stones, corrugated pottery shards (cookware), decorated pottery shards (serving vessels), a tomblike kiln and corn cobs that Hadenfeldt guesses are eight centuries old. And beneath the jutting overhang of a low cliff, stone structures with doorways and wall paintings of animal and human figures date back at least 1,000 years.
Looting and vandalism had been such a problem in the area that, in 2007, the Bureau of Land Management closed off a trail to motorized vehicles, a move that incensed some locals. One of the leading anti-monument voices, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, was arrested after leading a convoy of ATVs down the trail as a protest. (Lyman met multiple times with Zinke during the monument review process.) At the moment, Hadenfeldt says, only two park rangers patrol the entire monument, an area roughly 92 times the size of Manhattan. Supporters of the monument hoped the new status would translate to an increase in funding and thus more rangers, but that’s all in limbo now. Polling in the state shows support for public lands and Bears Ears. “And if you look at America in general, there’s no doubt that more people support the national monuments than oppose them,” he says. “These are public lands – they aren’t Utah lands, they aren’t San Juan County lands. They belong to everyone in this country, and everyone should have a say.”