Secretary Ryan Zinke Earns High Marks for "A Return to the Conservation Ethic"

Secretary Ryan Zinke Earns High Marks for "A Return to the Conservation Ethic"

Artwork credit: Wall Street Jounal

America’s public lands and waters can be a unifying force across the country. No one understands that better than Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who is getting high marks for the speed and scope of his departmental overhaul, aimed at increasing public access to America’s treasured places.

Some of that praise is coming from Wall Street Journal Editorial Board member Kimberley Strassel. In an article that appeared in the paper’s September 29 issue entitled A Return to the Conservation Ethic, Ms. Strassel calls Secretary Zinke a “reform-minded conservative” who told her, “My first goal is to restore trust with America that we are in fact using our public lands ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of the people’ – not for the very few and the elite.” The department manages roughly one-fifth of the surface area of the country, mostly in the west. “We are going to be great stewards of these treasures,” Secretary Zinke says in the article, “but we are also going to restore access to the people and to industry – and be a partner.”

Mr. Zinke’s office in Washington is a testament to his own lifelong love of the outdoors," says Ms. Strassel's article. "In one corner looms a massive stuffed grizzly bear. Two heads, a buffalo and an elk, are mounted over the fireplace. Cowboy hats litter the place, and a sign behind his desk reads: “Yep.” Mr. Zinke arrived for his first day on horseback, instituted a bring-your-dog-to-work day, installed the arcade game Big Buck Hunter in the cafeteria, and even personally shoveled snow at the Lincoln Memorial. But he spends much of his time on the road, exploring federal lands on horseback, in planes and on plows. “As Interior Secretary Swaggers Through Parks, His Staff Rolls Back Regulations,” the New York Times sniffed in a recent headline.

She goes on to say: Mr. Zinke says his longer-term goal is to make his department a better steward. He brings up President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous 1903 camping trip to Yosemite National Park with the preservationist John Muir : “They went out on this wonderful ride, a ride that you could not even replicate today because of the dead and dying trees.” Mr. Zinke has ordered all his agencies to put a priority on active management against wildfires. “We are spending $2 billion a year fighting fires, money that could be going to far better conservation efforts,” he says, visibly annoyed.

Such mismanagement is what drives Western frustration, which threatens to become a new Sagebrush Rebellion. “Some of the anger is that our grand bargains have been broken, and those bargains said that you had wilderness, but you also have grazing; you could also hunt and fish,” Mr. Zinke says. Now Westerners “watch these catastrophic fires, and they’ve lost any faith that the federal government is capable of being a good steward.”

Mr. Zinke believes the only way for Interior to improve its performance is through a radical overhaul. He plans to devolve far more authority and resources to front-line park and land managers, allowing them to make decisions more quickly and efficiently. “You end up with a park superintendent of 47 years who apparently can’t be trusted with making the grand decision of whether and when locals can collect fiddleheads,” a type of fern, he says. “They’re spending more time behind a desk, less in the field, and they are getting micromanaged.”

One of Mr. Zinke’s first trips as secretary was to Yellowstone National Park. His first stop was the Roosevelt Arch, whose cornerstone was laid by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. It is inscribed with that phrase from the law that created the park: “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” As a vision, that’s pure Gifford Pinchot, who became the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, during TR’s presidency. Pinchot was a founder of the conservationist movement, an ardent believer in market forces, and an aggressive proponent of controlled but profitable use of natural resources for the benefit of citizens.

Secretary Zinke has repeatedly emphasized the importance of increasing access to, and enjoyment of, America’s public lands and waters. Earlier this year, he met with representatives from the Outdoor Recreation Industry Roundtable to discuss how increased public-private partnerships can help improve visitor experiences, and to celebrate the vital role the outdoor recreation industry plays in America’s economy. He announced plans for a Recreation Advisory Committee and accepted more than two dozen recommendations for new partnerships and private sector investments to better serve visitors. In September, Secretary Zinke signed a Secretarial Order that aims to expand access to recreation on public lands. And he declared October National Hunting and Fishing Month.

“Secretary Zinke is a dynamic force at the Department of the Interior,” said American Recreation Coalition President Derrick Crandall. “Under his leadership, Interior is entering a new era of expanded public-private partnerships that will help improve visitor experiences through innovations like front-country broadband connectivity, modernized campgrounds, electronic fee collection and more!”