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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Dec 10 2018

Zinke’s Vow to Keep Public Lands in Public Hands Rings Hollow

More and more it appears he works for special interests, not the American public


When Ryan Zinke was nominated as secretary of the Interior two years ago, we had severe doubts that he would serve our public lands well. Our doubts were based on his checkered record as congressman of Montana, during which he voted to allow development within wilderness areas and to subvert bedrock environmental laws in the interest of fast-tracking logging projects. Just before his nomination, he was even working on a bill that would have gutted the Antiquities Act. 

There was, however, one somewhat bright spot in his record, and that was his rhetoric condemning the transfer of ownership of public lands to the states. He made a show of not attending the Republican Convention out of opposition to the party’s platform, which supported lands transfer. During his confirmation hearing, he vowed that he would fight to keep public lands in public hands

That vow rings more and more hollow the longer his tenure at the Department of the Interior plods on. 

Since taking over the Department of the Interior (DOI), Sec. Zinke has surrounded himself with proponents of lands transfer, hiring more than ten people who used to work for some of the biggest and most powerful lands transfer advocates in the country, including Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the offices of Utah Congressmen Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart.

Stand up to Zinke by signing our public lands pledge and attending the Rally for Public Lands on January 11 in Helena.

The latest such hire is a Wyoming lawyer named Karen Budd-Falen, one of the original sagebrush rebels and a legal architect of the lands transfer movement. Short of hiring Cliven Bundy, who happens to be one of Budd-Falen’s former clients, Zinke could hardly have made a more inappropriate choice for the job. She has made a career out of trying to seize public lands and of filing frivolous lawsuits against the very department that she now serves as deputy Interior solicitor for wildlife and parks. 

Here’s something Budd-Falen wrote back in the 1990s in reference to the department she now works for: “Federal and state agents threaten the life, liberty, and happiness of the people of Catron County. They present a clear and present danger to the land and livelihood of every man, woman, and child.” This comes from a land use plan she drafted for the county in which she more or less condemns public ownership of national public lands. 

By hiring Budd-Falen, Zinke has delivered a fox into the henhouse. 

If hiring an architect of the lands transfer movement weren’t enough, Zinke then accepted an invitation to talk about lands transfer at a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which drafts model lands transfer bills for state legislators. We don’t know what Zinke said in his address, but his mere presence at an ALEC meeting certainly lends dangerous credence to ALEC, which is funded by special interests that are intent on seizing and exploiting public lands. Mind you, this is the second time he's accepted an invitation to speak at an ALEC meeting. He spoke in a closed session last year

There are certainly many ways in which Secretary Zinke can subvert public ownership of public lands, ways that don’t necessarily need to involve transfer. He can limit, eliminate, or simply ignore public input on land management decisions. Zinke has done all three throughout his tenure as Interior secretary 

Last month, the Bureau of Land Management under Zinke announced that it would move ahead on auctioning off oil, gas, and fracking leases on 10,000 acres of public land in southwest Montana, including parcels along two of Montana’s blue ribbon streams – the Big Hole and Beaverhead Rivers. Unbelievably, the BLM made this decision after receiving thousands of comments against the lease sale and only one comment in support. 

And just last week, the DOI announced it would open 9 million acres of public lands across the West to drilling, mining, and other development. After a bipartisan agreement that involved a wide range of stakeholders and that took years to hammer out, the Obama administration had set aside those nine million acres to protect sage grouse habitat and keep the species off the endangered species list. Zinke ignored that agreement. 

Zinke may have offered an explanation for ignoring the public back in September during his keynote address at the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association “Our government should work for you,” he allegedly told the association. 

What can you do about it? 

First, sign our public lands pledge letting our decision makers that you won’t tolerate any attempt to sell off, sell out, or transfer our public lands. Secondly, stand with us against the seizure and exploitation of our public lands at the Rally for Public Lands, happening at noon on January 11 in the Capitol Rotunda in Helena. 

- John Todd, MWA deputy director