You are here

Traveler's View: Is Secretary Zinke Determined To Make His Legacy The Redefinition Of Public Lands?


How does Interior Secretary want to redefine the public lands landscape?/DOI

From dismantling national monuments to privatizing national park operations to skirting the National Environmental Policy Act to opening parklands to hunting and vanquishing wilderness. Is that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's agenda? It doesn't take much of an imagination to see it so.

After all, he's already seen President Trump adopt his recommendation to break up Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments. (Whether that action withstands judicial review, however, remains to be seen.

And the Interior secretary has displayed interest in seeing more privatization of operations in the National Park System. In that regard, it's not difficult to imagine that his decision to keep the National Park System open, as much as possible, during the government shutdown was a trial run for more privatization.

That was noticed by Rob Arnbarger, a former National Park Service regional director and superintendent.

"It negates any real closure and substantiates the notion that parks don't need the National Park Service to run or protect them," said Mr. Arnbarger, who worked for the Park Service for more than 30 years. "They can be run more effectively by private, commercial entities not subject to congressional inaction. Whether it was intended or not, keeping parks open for the economic sector has only validated the notion that privatized parks are a better management scheme than governmental management."

But what about NEPA and wilderness?

Back in September, when we asked "How Much Of Secretary Zinke's Approach To Conservation Can Public Lands Tolerate?", we pointed to a secretarial order Mr. Zinke signed to "support sportsmen and enhance wildlife conservation."

On its face, that secretarial order seems rather innocuous. But if you take a close look, there's an interesting section that addresses a "proposed categorical exclusion for proposed projects that utilize common practices solely intended to enhance or restore habitat for species such as sage-grouse and/or mule deer..."

"Categorical exclusions" are used to get around NEPA requirements for public scrutiny of a proposed action. What exactly the secretary was getting at back in September was a bit murky. But just the other day the secretary, an avid hunter, established a "Hunting and Shooting Sports Conservation Council."

"The Council is intended to provide the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture with advice regarding the establishment and implementation of existing and proposed policies and authorities with regard to wildlife and habitat conservation," read a release from the Interior Department. "The Council will examine ways to benefit wildlife resources; encourage partnership among the public, the sporting conservation organizations, state, tribal, territorial, and federal government; and benefit recreational hunting and recreational shooting sports."

Among the tasks Mr. Zinke assigned the council was to review past Executive Orders pertaining to, among other things, policies and programs that "promote opportunities and expand access to hunting and shooting sports on public and private lands."

“Hunters and anglers are the backbone of wildlife and habitat conservation in America. Through the purchase of duck stamps, bows, ammo, firearms, and more, sportsmen and women contribute billions of dollars to conservation. From my perspective, the more sportsmen we have in the woods and waters, the better our wildlife and habitat will be,” Secretary Zinke said earlier this month.

If you take the secretary for his word, his goal is to open up more public lands to more hunting, and the National Park System is the last realm of public lands that greatly limits hunting within its borders.

Seem far-fetched?

Just as we asked you to connect the dots last week in regards to the secretary's long-term vision for how the National Park System should operate, try connecting the dots to see how the Interior secretary might maneuver to allow more hunting in the National Park System and less wilderness:

* He long has touted hunting and acted on behalf of the hunting community.

* He appointed Susan LaPierre, co-chair of the National Rifle Association's Women's Leadership Forum and wife of NRA Executive Director Wayne LaPierre, to the National Park Foundation Board of Directors.

* Directed those within the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management who oversee national monuments to "amend National Monument Management Plans to include or expand hunting, recreational shooting, and fishing opportunities" where possible.

* He recently appointed a hunting conservation council and tasked it to look for ways to expand hunting and sport shooting on public, and private, lands.

* He issued that secretarial order back in September calling for a categorical exclusion that would allow the department to skirt NEPA with an end goal of improving habitat for species. Allowing hunters to reduce burgeoning elk herds in parks such as Rocky Mountain National Park could be seen as a way of improving habitat.

* Official wilderness bans motorized vehicles, such as small OHVs and ATVs hunters might use to penetrate deep into landscapes. Could a categorical exclusion be used to allow such vehicles and their roads into national parks and within Wilderness Study Areas, or even official wilderness, in the National Park System? Glacier National Park, the backdrop to Mr. Zinke's long-time home, has no official wilderness and lots of game, ranging from bighorn sheep and mountain goats to moose and elk. And on Monday the secretary cleared the way for a road to cut through a national wildlife refuge in Alaska.

"My interpretation of that is that it means they’re going to try to circumvent NEPA," one long-time parks observer said of Secretary Zinke's appointment of the hunting council, and before that a Recreation Advisory Committee to develop suggestions including, among other things, how "public-private partnerships" can improve access and infrastructure on public lands. “Will they be able to do that? I sure hope not. But it certainly seems to be a possibility.”

Another observer said groups are lining up with lawsuits ready if the Interior secretary moves in that direction.

Public lands in general, and the National Park System specifically, are integral parts of this country. We need the space and environmental resources they provide and protect. Just look at the congestion of the East Coast without a large public landscape. The more public lands are chipped away at, either by opening them up to energy exploration or tossing aside regulations that restrict new roads and developments, the more we as a nation lose.

Mr. Zinke continues to promote himself as a latter-day Theodore Roosevelt, but his actions better define him as a prodigy of Gifford Pinchot, who believed in conservation but also that, “The object of our forest policy is not to preserve the forests because they are beautiful-or because they are refuges for the wild creatures of the wilderness-but the making of prosperous homes-every other consideration becomes secondary.” 

Please Support Independent National Park Journalism

Use the links below to make your donation to National Parks Traveler via PayPal, or send your check to National Parks Traveler, P.O. Box 980452, Park City, Utah, 84098. The Traveler is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit media organization. For U.S. residents, 100 percent of your contributions may be eligible for a tax deduction in accordance with applicable law. 

Featured Article


Hopefully, not much of this will actually happen.  Most of Zinke's schemes will be met by lawsuits and hopefully anything he manages to shove through will be reversable in three years when the current mob has been replaced by voters who seem to be realizing that a yuge mistake was made when drumpf was elected.

At least we can hope . . . . 

Categorical Exclusions do not "skirt" NEPA nor are they used primarily to get around public review of actions. In fact, they are part of NEPA. They are used on projects that have little to no resource impact and mostly for routine actions, such as replacement in kind maintenance activities, small changes to existing projects, etc. Imagine if the public had to be consulted everytime a parking lot had to be striped, for example!  Not efficient, therefore, CEs can be used to ensure that the project is analyzed for impacts, mitigation measures are applied, and there is a record of this analysis. However, parks can and do sometimes as for public review of projects that are using categorical exclusions as their NEPA compliance and they think the public may have something to say. Two recent ones in Yellowstone include the parking area at Fairy Falls and the replacement of the footbridge off of Hwy 191. This is not to comment on Zinke's intentions, only to set straight the record on the purpose and use of CEs in the compliance process.

When new administrations come to power they always look for something to "do." At Interior, the public lands are an easy target (they're public, after all), and that goes for both Republicans and Democrats.

I recall my frustration in 2009 watching President Obama, aka Ken Salazar, "give away" our public lands for wind and solar projects. Right up until the last minute of the Obama Administration Fish and Wildlife was rewriting the rules on eagles. It made me sick, but how did most readers of The Traveler react? Like they always react when it's "their" side. Mr. Obama could do no wrong.

Do I like Mr. Zinke? I don't. Do I understand him? I do. Any historian should understand that the party in power is hell bent on changing the rules.

Another example, if I may. My good friends, the late Carsten Lien and the late Michael Frome, repeatedly allowed me to "referee" their arguments about Horace Albright. Michael loved him; Carsten hated him, both having known him in the flesh. "Albright was the finest director of the Park Service we ever had," argued Michael. "Nonsense," Carsten replied. "You only like him because he liked you. In truth, he was the biggest land developer in the history of the Park Service. He never met a road or parking lot he didn't like. All of our problems today go back to Horace Albright, and I don't care if he took you to lunch."

Scoop Jackson is another example. Again, Carsten hated him for supporting the logging industry over the needs of Olympic National Park. In fact, in the California redwoods, environmentalists alleged that Senator Jackson delayed the Senate hearings on Redwood National Park (Redwood Creek) until most of the old-growth timber had been cut.

Hillary Clinton lost. That's all that really happened here. Nothing fundamental in THE SYSTEM has changed. We're Americans; we put our comfort first. And that goes for every environmentalist I have ever known, as well. Michael; Carsten; Me; You. We all live in nice homes and drive nice cars. Who are we kidding when we scream Trump did this and that? After Carsten and Michael had finished their argument at my favorite coffee shop, we all took our wives out for a juicy steak, which incidentally comes from an animal that feeds on grass, and yes, poops all over our public lands.

Do you want to know why I left all of the environmental organizations? There Michael and Carsten actually agreed. All have forgotten what the fight really is about. POPULATION. You can't have wilderness in a country that alleges to recognize "limits," while ignoring the limit that really matters. I know. . . THE WALL STREET JOURNAL this week had yet another article why increasing our population is really "good" for us. The economy will boom, stupid! Well, I'm staying stupid in that case. I think not.

Zinke? Obama? Trump? Clinton? Yadda, yadda, yadda. If you want to keep your national parks, it's goes far deeper than any of them.

Yep, you keep hitting homeruns in my Park, Mr. Runte!  The style points and smile overcomes all those Eagle and other bird deaths to give a favor to his major donors and money laundering schemes going to the Democrat party.  I believe there is plenty evidence already known with dump truck loads of more shady crap coming out every minute just how sleazy things have been.  Never would've come out of Hillary had won.  My family has long roots to the Parks but the nest needs to be cleaned out.

I think voters are beginning to realize how corrupt and dishonest the previous administration was. Zinke and the current administration seem to be in align with average person and park visitors. More access and less regulation is what the majority the majority of the people want and this administration is delivering. I believe we will learn more about how mismanagement at the DOI has resulted in an out of control maintenance backlog. Your calling the POTUS "drumpf" takes away any creditably you have. Thanks Rick.

Oh, anon above...can you say cofirmation bias? THe majority of the people didn't vote for Trump. The majority of the voters who actually showed up on election day nationwide didn't even vote him. Be careful about assuming you live in the majority. I want less access and more regulation. Because I do, and because most people I hang out with do too, do I assume I'm in the majority? No, but depending on how you phrase the question, I can find a public poll to support the idea that some "majority" agrees with my position.

I still *believe* the majority of Americans want less regulation and more access in regards to parks wether they voted for Trump or not. I believe those that want more regulation and less access are ideologically biased and misinformed, like all those that believe in the climate change scam. Polls are useless these days...

The first "Anonymous" claims that the previous Administration was more corrupt than the current one.  Come on!  More Trump Administration officials have been indicted in his first year than during Obama's 8 years, with many more to come.  Secretary Zinke himself is under formal investigation by the Inspector General for alleged travel fraud.   This is not surprising since a finding of travel fraud, stealing money from American taxpayers, capped Zinke's naval career.  Just today, Zinke appointed as Acting Director of the National Park Service an individual who made a corrupt bargain to benefit a billionaire.  Couldn't Zinke find somebody with unquestioned ethics, or was the appointment of another ethically-challenged individual done on purpose?  

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide