On March 1, 2017, the Senate confirmed Ryan Zinke as Secretary of the Interior. In grand fashion, Secretary Zinke arrived to his first day of work—at the invitation of the National Park Service (“NPS”) Park Police—riding an Irish sport horse. As Secretary of the Interior, Zinke’s responsibilities will include overseeing the management of national lands, waters and resources through the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”), the NPS, the Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”), the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and several other agencies. Secretary Zinke is a former Navy SEAL and a former Republican Congressman from Montana.
Zinke has declared that his first priority as Secretary is to address the $12.5 billion deferred maintenance and repair backlog within the National Park System. Zinke has also prioritized increasing employee morale and ensuring that employees have the appropriate resources to do their jobs. He has said he will focus on reliance on agency officials on the ground, remarking that “decisions are often better [made] on the front line.” However, proposed cuts to federal staffing set out by the Trump Administration in late January and a potential decrease in the Department of the Interior’s 2018 budget could make both of these goals challenging.
Zinke has also emphasized the need to ensure that tribal sovereignty is respected. While he has received support from tribal leaders in Montana and many believe he has historically been seen as a “moderate” with respect to Native American issues, it will remain to be seen whether other tribes support him during his first few months in the Trump Administration.
As Secretary of the Interior, Zinke will also oversee the Fish and Wildlife Service. Though he has not publicly outlined any plans for that agency during his tenure, he did repeal a rule banning the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle in FWS refuges and other federal lands on his first full day in office. While in Congress, Zinke often voted against endangered species protections for species such as the greater sage grouse, African elephant, gray wolf, and American burying beetle.
Finally, while most of Zinke’s priorities seem to be in line with efforts the Trump Administration has promoted, the new Secretary has stepped away from the Administration’s opinions on some issues. Similar to statements President Trump made during the campaign, on many occasions, Secretary Zinke has reaffirmed his commitment not to sell, transfer, or privatize public land, remarking during his confirmation hearing that he was “absolutely against” it. During his confirmation hearings, Zinke also supported a reversal of the BLM’s rules for venting and flaring methane on federal lands. However, parting somewhat with the well-publicized opinions of the Trump Administration, Zinke has confirmed that, while he believes the concept of climate change is “indisputable,” he also supports an “all of the above” approach to energy and thinks there is still a place for fossil fuel drilling—including coal mining—on federal lands.