CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Ryan Zinke recently did something that he should have done the first week he took over the helm of the Interior Department in 2017: meeting with a diverse array of American conservation leaders whose groups, in turn, represent tens of millions of people who care about environmental protection.

One person who was in the room told me: “It was just a meeting, nothing more. The secretary doing a lot of smooth talking. Anyone who believes he’s a born-again conservationist is a fool.”

The person said that akin to when Zinke, a former congressman from Montana, went through confirmation hearings to become Interior Secretary, he claimed he’d be emulating Theodore Roosevelt. “Instead,” the individual said, “the decisions he’s made have caused even some hook and bullet organizations to distance themselves from him.”

I’ve had an ongoing request to do a comprehensive interview with Zinke going back a year now. His press secretary, Heather Swift, said she “didn’t think it would be in the best interests of the secretary to sit down for an in-depth interview.”

A couple of things to note: When I told a few former Interior press secretaries I know, who have served under both Republican and Democrat Interior Secretaries, of Swift’s attempts to control the press, they replied that Zinke and Swift are mistaken if they believe interviews are only granted to advance Zinke’s personal best interests.

He is obligated to answer tough questions about his stewardship of the people’s landscape—hundreds of millions of acres of public land under his authority—and which belong to all citizens. Further, U.S. taxpayers fund the salaries of Zinke and Swift, not a political party, nor special interests who hold sway in the swamp.

To date, Zinke has, for the most part, only courted press opportunities with reporters whom he knows will not subject him to probing inquires. I know many reporters nationwide who are also frustrated by Swift’s evasive behavior.

She has aggressively tried to deflect reporters eager to ask Zinke about his policies favoring, for example, the energy industry over the protection of finite things such as clean water and air, and wildlife habitat, as well as the fact that morale of federal land management agencies has gone into steep decline under Zinke’s command.

It’s extraordinary, on the face of it, that Secretary Zinke, who boasts of his service to country as a Navy SEAL, apparently doesn’t have the courage to field tough questions from the press.

Until only recently, he also snubbed meetings with the largest U.S. conservation groups, except a few that claim to represent hunters. Yet those organizations have not said a discouraging word about the Trump administration’s attacks on wildlife habitat protection, gutting of national monuments and environmental laws, overturning bans on toxic lead ammunition and proposals to allow oil drilling in sensitive coastal areas.

According to a story published by E & E News about Zinke’s recent meeting with about two dozen conservation and environmental leaders, Zinke is now considering making “a grand pivot” back to conservation.

This, only after he has come under unprecedented fire from moderate Theodore Roosevelt Republicans who say his actions are far more radical than those advanced by Interior Secretary James Watt during the Reagan years.

“The secretary is very much crowd-sourcing ideas for the reorganization,” Swift told E & E. “It was a reorg-focused meeting, from the conservation angle.”

A note to Heather Swift: “ideas” for how to protect America’s wildlife, air, land and water for future generations do not need to be “crowd-sourced.” They should be abundantly obvious. Anyone who claims to be channeling his inner Theodore Roosevelt knows that you don’t, as one of your first public actions, eviscerate one of TR’s greatest contributions to America’s conservation heritage—creating national monuments.

You don’t, by fiat, move to weaken the Migratory Bird Treaty Act or open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling on behalf of oil and gas interests. You don’t lay the groundwork for new gas fields to sprout in the middle of important wildlife migration corridors. You don’t pretend climate change doesn’t exist or break promises you made to vigorously defend the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Let us hope some of the hook and bullet organizations that vouched for Zinke the first time around are not so gullible as to get duped again. Zinke has done a lot of damage that first needs to be undone.

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org), is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly. His feature on the delisting of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies appears in the winter 2018 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.