Zinke’s Gone, But the Interior Won’t Change

15 Dec

A little over a year after Outside published my profile of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, he’s finally on his way out.

Like many reporters who’ve followed Ryan Zinke’s tumultuous tenure at Interior, I’m surprised he was able to hang in there for so long. Zinke seemed impervious to the kind of flak that brought down his colleague Scott Pruitt, the departed Environmental Protections Agency secretary who shilled for oil and gas companies in his previous role as Oklahoma attorney general, along with former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

According to the Washington Post, Zinke’s scandals became too much for the Administration, which forced Zinke to resign by the end of the year or be fired. His resignation comes amid an avalanche of investigations into his official conduct—one of which, involving his shady real estate dealings with the chairman of Halliburton, was formally referred to the Justice Department in October.

Zinke’s office has been scandal-plagued from the outset, drawing scrutiny from nonprofit watchdogs, whistleblowers, and Interior’s inspector general for missteps big and small—from ordering a $139,000 set of doors for his office to shuttling his wife Lola around in government vehicles to paying $12,000 for a charter flight from a speaking engagement in Las Vegas to his hometown of Whitefish to commandeering a National Park Service helicopter to deliver him to a horseback date with Mike Pence to threatening Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski over her vote against advancing the House’s Obamacare repeal-and-replace legislation.

Amid potentially serious ethics violations, Zinke also gained notoriety for his willingness to be a bulldog in defense of his boss. It was in that capacity that the former Navy SEAL, who claimed he would run Interior as a military command, broke a bedrock maxim of military leadership: Never undermine the troops’ morale. In September 2017, he told a group of oil and gas executives, “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.”

Considering the audience, it was clear he was not referring to the American flag—he was referring to Trump and to himself, implying that a rogue coterie of Interior employees was working at cross purposes to the Administration’s aggressive pro-industry and anti-conservation agenda. But those oil and gas executives need not have worried that mutinous Interior employees might sabotage Zinke’s plans to open millions of acres to onshore and offshore energy leases and to roll back environmental regulations for the benefit of their bottom lines. Under Zinke’s leadership, Interior scientists and field staff whose research into climate change and controversial wildlife issues put them at odds with local power brokers and with Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda found themselves involuntarily reassigned—essentially, exiled to Siberia.

Joel Clement, a senior Interior employee and climate scientist who claims he was reassigned because of the nature of his work, filed a whistleblower complaint that summed up the sentiment among concerned civil servants and citizens. “I believe that every president, regardless of party, has the right and responsibility to implement his policies. But that is not what is happening here,” Clement said. “Putting citizens in harm’s way isn’t the president’s right. Silencing civil servants, stifling science, squandering taxpayer money and spurning communities in the face of imminent danger have never made America great.”

Zinke marched on, undeterred, making reductions to the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments that conveniently facilitated access to oil, gas, coal and uranium deposits; scaling back requirements for extractive industry companies to mitigate the damage they cause to public land; searching for a way to relieve oil and gas companies of the burden of complying with the Obama Administration’s requirement that they capture a certain amount of methane instead of flaring it off and thereby wasting a publicly-owned resource; pursuing offshore oil leasing on nearly the entirety of the Atlantic and Pacific seaboard against the wishes of citizens and governors; opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration and expanding leasing in the equally fragile ecosystem surrounding the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska; reversing the twenty-year moratorium the Obama Administration put on mining at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota; pushing for the dismantling of federal sage grouse management plans that identify priority breeding habitat across eleven Western states in order to open millions of acres of public land to energy development.

Zinke’s detractors alleged that all of this was being done for the exclusive benefit of extractive industries and the politicians who do their bidding, and Zinke said as much himself. Speaking to yet another group of energy executives in Houston, he said, “Interior should not be in the business of being an adversary. We should be in the business of being a partner.” Facing withering criticism, Zinke appeared unfazed. “You know what, I do my job,” he said. “I disregard the B.S.”

Many of the Zinke scandals recounted above were underway back in 2017 when I was reporting on Zinke for the Outside profile. Only a few months into his tenure at the time, Zinke was already a disappointment to the conservation organizations that applauded his nomination (less so because they were genuinely enthusiastic about his self-styled Teddy Roosevelt Republicanism, and more so because they were appalled by the other names on the list: Sarah Palin, fracking kingpin Harold Hamm, oil products tycoon Forrest Lucas, et al).

While Zinke’s inability to properly rig a fly rod generated the most buzz of anything I reported in the story, it was an exchange with Sarah Greenberger—an advisor to outgoing secretary Sally Jewell who worked on the now-embattled sage grouse plans—that seemed most prescient and troubling to me:

“Decisions made now can reverberate for decades,” [Greenberger] said. “We are at a place where species, wildlife, and habitat are facing really significant stress from population growth, habitat fragmentation, development, and climate change, and unless we are thoughtful and strategic about the decisions we make at this moment, there’s a lot of damage that can be done that’s hard to unwind,” she said.

“How much damage can he do?” I asked.

“I think a secretary could create long-lasting and irreversible damage,” she said.

With Greenberger’s assessment rattling in my head all these months, I have watched Zinke’s downward spiral with trepidation. Constant media exposure and a litany of investigations did not slow the pace of destruction, and his departure does not imply a pro-environment reorientation at Interior. After all, Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt—an industry insider and skilled political operative—has probably been steering the ship all along. Now he’s in charge.

As for Zinke, he’s handed out a lot of favors, and he probably has a trailer full of golden parachutes emblazoned with energy company logos to choose from. He’s gone for now, but I doubt we’ve seen the last of him. 

Americans Voted Overwhelmingly to Protect Wild Places

8 Nov

On Tuesday, voters affirmed their commitment to public land and conservation in an era of multifaceted attacks on wilderness, wildlife, national monuments, critical habitat, and clean air and water.

From Montana to Minnesota, to states as far from the West as Connecticut and Georgia, voters turned out in decisive numbers to support pro-public-land candidates and to oppose the pro-industry favoritism of President Trump and interior secretary Ryan Zinke. Equally noteworthy, several races wound up with Republicans and Democrats toeing the same line of public-lands support—lending credibility to the idea that conservation issues offer a rare space for politicians and voters from both parties to meet in the middle. “You look at the big picture and candidates in swing states realized that pro-public-lands stances are a beneficial place to go,” says Aaron Weiss of the Denver-based nonprofit Center for Western Priorities. “It’s one of the last big issues that really speaks to folks in both parties.”

“Overall, the observance is that conservation issues were on the ballot across the country,” says Jenny Rowland of the Center for American Progress, “and we’re seeing that voters are rejecting the Zinke- and Trump-branded attacks on parks, the oceans, and national monuments.” All told, the Center for American Progress reports that public lands and environmental issues played decisive roles in at least 14 races.

“My hope was that public lands would become a top-tier issue and not something we only care about after we have a roof on our head and pay for health care,” says Land Tawney, president of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, based in Missoula, Montana. “That was my hope, but I didn’t think it would play this well in places like Minnesota.” Tawney says he was particularly encouraged to see Erik Paulsen, a Republican from Hennepin County, Minnesota, which includes parts of the Minneapolis suburbs, launch his campaign with a video of himself paddling a canoe in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). In the ad, Paulsen pledges to protect the Boundary Waters from a proposed copper-nickel mining project, which Trump and Zinke have sought to facilitate, and which conservationists and environmentalists claim poses an existential threat to one of the most unique freshwater ecosystems in North America. “When President Trump tried to take away important environmental protections for the Boundary Waters, I said no way,” Paulsen says in the ad while standing on the reedy shores of a Minnesota lake. “I’ll stand up to my party or President Trump to protect Minnesota.”

Paulsen lost to Democrat Dean Phillips, who also opposes mining near the Boundary Waters, but for Tawney, the fact that both candidates stepped up for the BWCA is noteworthy. In Tawney’s home state of Montana, a nail-biter of a race between Republican state auditor Matt Rosendale and incumbent Democratic senator Jon Tester, the legitimacy of each of the candidates’ claims to support public lands and conservation was under heavy scrutiny. Rosendale had difficulty escaping the long shadow of his formerly enthusiastic support for the sale and transfer of public land, which he expressed with unflinching conviction back in 2014 when he ran against Zinke in the Republican congressional primary. He sought to recant that position throughout 2018. Tester, who has long been considered a champion of public lands and conservation, helped craft the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which passed in 2014 and expanded the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area by 67,000 acres. This year he worked across the aisle to get his Montana Republican colleagues senator Steve Daines and congressman Greg Gianforte to support a bill to withdraw 30,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land near Yellowstone National Park from the mineral leasing program.

Rosendale lost despite Trump visiting Montana four times in recent months, often on what seemed like a personal mission to derail Tester. “Jon Tester successfully turned public lands and public-lands access into a third rail for Republicans,” Weiss says, explaining how a wave of land-transfer bills failed at the level of state legislatures across the West back in 2015, including in Montana, at the height of the land-transfer movement. Tester seized on that moment to cement enduring support for public lands. “The more extreme folks in the state are not making it to the federal level,” says Weiss. “They have to run to the middle on public lands and support for public access.” 

Nevada senator Dean Heller, the incumbent Republican who applauded Zinke’s controversial review of national monuments last year and has proposed legislation to eliminate wilderness study areas, lost to Democrat Jacky Rosen, who stuck up for monuments and made public lands a central part of her campaign. In New Mexico, senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat who has also defended national monuments and last year helped to open access to the Sabinoso Wilderness Area, easily defeated his Republican opponent, Mark Rich, who has called for Bureau of Land Management land to be transferred to the states and then privatized. 

Ballot initiatives also spoke to the muscle of a pro-public-lands and public-waters constituency. In Connecticut, an initiative to make it harder to sell state lands passed by 84.5 percent. After a scandal last year involving Zinke’s decision to exempt Florida from the Interior Department’s nationwide offshore drilling expansion, following a request from governor Rick Scott (whose Senate race against incumbent Bill Nelson, a Democrat, may be headed for a recount), Floridians voted to ban offshore drilling. Georgians voted by a four-to-one margin to divert 80 percent of sales-tax revenue from sporting-goods stores into a state-run conservation fund. (Of course, the news wasn’t all good.)

With an empowered public-lands caucus in the House and an imminent changeover of chairmanships on vital committees like the House Natural Resources Committee, conservationists and environmentalists are hopeful that popular bipartisan legislation, like a bill to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, will finally become law. Since 2015, the House Natural Resources Committee has been chaired by land-transfer proponent Rob Bishop of Utah, a Republican who has also sought to undermine the Endangered Species Act and wilderness protections. Ranking member Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, will likely chair the committee starting next year. Beyond the LWCF, public-lands advocates are hoping Congress will move forward with pending legislation to fund wildlife protection and habitat enhancement, parks maintenance, and conservation components of the farm bill.

Grijalva is pledging to use the committee’s investigate powers to investigate Zinke and other appointees who he calls “ethically challenged.” “They're going to be held accountable, and if they don’t want to participate in that accountability, then we have other legal recourses to make them do that,” Grijalva says. “And I think we are expected to do that and we need to do that.”

Whit Fosburgh, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, based in Washington, D.C., says he’s excited to work with a House that would focus on important bipartisan conservation legislation. “We’re not going to see all these extreme anti-public-land, anti-wildlife bills coming out of the House,” Fosburgh says, referring to unviable legislation that has come out of the Natural Resources Committee under Bishop’s leadership, including bills to sell millions of acres of public land, eliminate the land-management agencies’ law-enforcement arms, and allow bicycles and other wheeled vehicles into wilderness areas. “Now we will not have to spend half our time playing defense.”

Fosburgh is hopeful that the new House membership will work to divert more funds to the Conservation Reserve Program in the ongoing farm-bill negotiations. CRP, managed by the Department of Agriculture, pays farmers to take land out of production and set it aside as wildlife habitat. He said that low commodities prices for crops like soybeans may help garner support for CRP from Republicans in the Midwest who are seeking relief for their constituents.

One of the most significant public-lands moments in the election cycle actually happened last spring, when lieutenant governor Brad Little defeated congressman Raul Labrador in Idaho’s Republican gubernatorial primary. Labrador, a Tea Party member who is considered to be far right of center on public-lands issues, wrote an op-ed in 2016 claiming that the Bundys’ armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was “civil disobedience.” In the same op-ed, Labrador argued for pilot projects that would test local control of land management on national forest lands. Idahoans rejected Labrador. So when Democrat Paulette Jordan and Little faced off on Tuesday, voters had a choice between two politicians who were both appealing to the middle on public lands.

“It feels like we’ve managed to shift the ground on this stuff, so that if public land is a wedge issue, it’s a wedge within the Republican Party and not within the broader electorate,” says Weiss. “And we see that as victory.”

Can Paulette Jordan Rise Above Idaho’s Partisan Rules?

6 Nov

The horns and cymbals of the Boise High School marching band blared and crashed as a crowd filed into the Cathedral of the Rockies to hear Idaho’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Paulette Jordan, talk about “transformational politics.” The event was hosted by Michael Sapiro, who runs a local Buddhist center. After a 15-minute guided meditation, Sapiro and Jordan got down to business. “I’m neither Democrat nor Republican,” Jordan said, in response to one of his early questions. “I’m the party of love.” The audience, which consisted mainly of older white women, applauded.

These were voters who, to put it mildly, are looking for a politician who is not like Donald Trump, and who could blame them for thinking they’d found it in this tall, confident woman? She had managed to win legislative elections in a part of the state that was rapidly swinging red, and she could riff like a guru on the awesome power of love and spirituality.

At one point, Sapiro asked Jordan how she handles criticism in the harsh world of politics. “It’s the power of prayer that protects me,” Jordan replied. “I don’t feel any of it—I feel like I have a shield. They can shoot their arrows, but I only get hurt if I let them penetrate me.”

“Did anybody else get chills?” Sapiro asked the audience.

“There are prophecies,” Jordan continued. “People around the world are having the same dreams ... People around the world are coming and saying, ‘We are relying on you.’” Was Jordan suggesting that she she’d heard from people in other countries who were looking at Idaho’s gubernatorial race as a bellwether of prophetic possibilities?

Maybe. “They say I’m too good to be true,” she said to Sapiro later in the program, without a trace of irony. “Someone even said, ‘She’s perfect.’”


This was the Paulette Jordan who has seized national media attention—the horse-riding Coeur d’Alene tribal government official, descendant of chiefs, mother, and two-term Idaho legislator who once turned down an athletic scholarship to the University of Washington to focus on academics.

“Her years on the basketball court compound the air of dominance with which she navigates a room,” BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen wrote in a profile about Jordan’s rise from humble agrarian roots on a reservation. “You could call it cocky. Or you could just use the word her supporters use: confident.”

“Some people, often older men, cry when they meet Jordan,” wrote the Huffington Post’s Jennifer Bendery. “The Idaho gubernatorial ticket has never seen a politician like Jordan before,” added CNN’s Kyung Lah.

It’s not surprising that Jordan is in the spotlight—her timing is perfect, after all. Now 38, she is one of 276 women running for major office throughout the country during this historic election cycle, inspired by the #metoo movement and the backlash against Trump, but also, and most important, by a desire to step up and help drag this country back from the brink. Adding to her national appeal, Jordan would be the first Native American governor in U.S. history if she wins. Lisa Uhlmann, who works for Boise’s nonprofit Women’s and Children’s Alliance, sums up the local optimism surrounding Jordan’s campaign like so: “Paulette is a breath of fresh air, making the world a better place, especially in Idaho and especially for our women and children.”

Tai Simpson, a sociology graduate student and community organizer from the Nez Perce tribe, agrees. “She’s changing the dynamic,” she says of Jordan, “bringing a voice when we didn’t have one.”

I met Simpson in early October, when I walked with Jordan to an event at Boise City Hall, celebrating the mayor’s official redesignation of Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day. “We feel represented, it’s energizing,” Simpson said. She stressed that Jordan’s indigenous roots are not even her most important attribute. “She represents us as a human being. What we’ve lacked as a society—compassion, empathy, and caretaking—her policies reflect that. I don’t necessarily think that comes from her being indigenous. I think that she is just a good person and a smart person, and if she had all those attributes as a white guy, I’d still be behind the campaign, because that’s what our cities and our counties need.”

To many progressives, Jordan’s brand of low-key populism comes off as a welcome counterpoint to hyper-partisanship. The thing is, though, she’s not really a progressive in the usual sense. On one hand, she’s an outspoken advocate for medical marijuana and marijuana decriminalization, and she speaks out against the harsh rhetoric aimed at immigrants and refugees. But she describes herself as a “strong supporter of the Second Amendment”—she voted yes on a “stand your ground” bill this year, which the Republican governor opposed—and says she gets along with members of Idaho’s militia groups, one of which, the Idaho Three Percenters, helped occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 and has staged armed marches to protest refugee resettlement.

She also speaks fondly of her collegiality with far-right members of the state legislature, saying it’s a sign of leadership to listen to everyone. When talking about revenue and spending issues, she describes herself as “conservative.” She says the Affordable Care Act “isn’t working,” and she supports Proposition 2, a ballot initiative that would force the Idaho legislature come up with the ten percent of matching funds to expand Medicaid. She says she’s pro-life, but she supports a woman’s right to choose. She has raised over half a million dollars—much of it in small donations, and none of it from Super PACs—and she’s spent most of it. If she were running in Massachusetts, she could run as a Republican.

While Jordan’s views may not line up perfectly with the national Democratic Party, they do reflect the state she is running to serve. More than an image of the progressive wave, Jordan represents a past when political perspectives within the parties were more regionally diverse—when there were such things as conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. And in Idaho, it could be the past—more than a progressive wave—that offers a roadmap out of the partisan morass.


All of this has made Jordan something of an enigma and may explain why none of her colleagues in the Idaho legislature endorsed her in the primary. Cindy Wilson, the Democratic candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction, has withheld her endorsement, too. The Idaho Education Association, which represents teachers and normally supports Democrats, threw their support behind Jordan’s Republican opponent, Brad Little. In addition, Little won the endorsement of Conservation Voters for Idaho, along with the state’s firefighters. Jordan brushes off these snubs as the predictable hedging of the establishment.

There’s little question that Jordan’s outsider status gave her an edge in the Democratic primary, but at this stage of the race, she remains an outsider, and that may have less to do with her maverick image and more to do with a spate of eyebrow-raising campaign shake-ups, her tendency to pick fights with local journalists, and her sometimes questionable campaign spending and finances.

Some have speculated that Jordan’s frequent, expensive, and often out-of-state travel during the campaign—she spent a reported $85,434 on travel compared to Little’s $3,019, including almost $35,000 on airfare alone—suggests that her long-term ambitions lie outside of Idaho, that the gubernatorial campaign is just a gambit to raise her national profile. At a recent debate with Little, one journalist on the panel grilled her about why she’s had a documentary film crew following her around, and whether that crew was paid with campaign money. Jordan insisted they were not, but fumbled awkwardly in her explanation.

With so much scrutiny, Jordan sometimes sounds as if she’d like to be unburdened of her party altogether. The problem is, there’s no Party of Love in Idaho, and Jordan is running as a Democrat in a red state where even centrist Republicans like Little have to contend with attacks from the party’s sizable right wing. Little, a rancher who currently serves as lieutenant governor, won a narrow primary victory over Congressman Raul Labrador, a Tea Party member who had the backing of the far-right Idaho Freedom Foundation, which constitutes something like a party-within-a-party. The hitherto unknown Jordan defeated A. J. Balukoff, a 72-year-old California transplant and perennial candidate who outspent her five to one. Without a single establishment endorsement to her name, she left little doubt that she had tapped into something big when she trounced him by 18 points. Democratic turnout was so high in Boise on primary night that two precincts ran out of ballots. Her resounding victory—bolstered by national attention—has given her the confidence to dismiss the naysayers.


Jordan’s candidacy is an uphill fight—the most recent poll, done in August, had her trailing by eight points—but for a moment in May, it seemed like a Democrat might have a shot at the governor’s mansion for the first time since Cecil Andrus won his last term in 1990. Andrus, a prolific hunter and angler who was elected four times and served 14 years, set a model for what Democratic governorships could look like in a state divided by formidable geography and cultural differences—from the religious southeastern sagebrush, to the sprawling Boise metro area, to the mountainous panhandle, where anti-government activists co-mingled with miners, loggers, and tribes. Andrus was a giant whose ability to command respect on both sides of the aisle was the product of a lifetime of service. His friends included Idaho Senator Frank Church, who sponsored the 1964 Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. During a hiatus as Secretary of Interior under President Jimmy Carter, Andrus helped craft the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. He was a rare politician, able to charm or muscle his way across the divide, but he also served in the twilight of the old Idaho—when strong unions representing the mining, timber, and railroad industries guaranteed Democratic strongholds in the panhandle and Pocatello. Mining and timber were already in decline when a “right to work” referendum passed in 1986, bringing the unions to their knees. Andrus would last another eight years, but the Idaho Democratic Party never recovered.

All the while, a steady influx of conservative refugees fleeing the Pacific Coast has been pouring into the state since at least the 1970s, shifting the balance ever rightward. Idaho has the third most Republican-controlled legislature in the country, with 59 Republicans to 11 Democrats in the House. Boise leans solidly blue, but large though it is—the city holds about 230,000 people—it’s still only about an eighth of the state’s population, not big enough to offset the sea of red. Still, for more than two decades, Democrats in Idaho have hoped for an Andrus-like figure to come along. If they thought Paulette Jordan was that person, they are almost certainly disappointed now.


In the months since Jordan’s impressive primary victory, she has struggled to articulate a message, and that’s especially clear with issues that involve public land and the environment. Beyond voicing her support for incentivizing renewable energy development, saying public land should stay public (Brad Little shares both positions), and opposing Idaho’s recent tightening of trespass laws, Jordan’s ideas range from shaky to right-of-Republican. When I met up with her in Boise in October, we discussed her priorities. She said one major goal is the deconstruction of the four Lower Snake River dams, which would help native salmon, steelhead, and lamprey populations recover, and which, according to Jordan, would boost the northwest’s recreation economy. This goal is an obsession among anglers and environmentalists and the movement has been gathering steam in recent years, but the fate of these dams—which are all in Washington—is a multi-state and multi-agency matter that Jordan would have limited sway over as Idaho governor.

I asked what she thinks about the idea of state control over the management of federal lands, which appears to be the latest incarnation of the national land-transfer movement. “I’m firmly in favor of autonomy of local control,” she said. Did that mean she was in favor of the state managing timber, energy, and mining development on federal public land? “It’s tricky for me because, if it’s me, I trust myself and I would say I am going to be a great steward when it comes to working with BLM, and any federal agency,” she said. “But if it’s another, say a Republican, who has been known to do more damage or harm, then no.”

I brought up a county commission’s recent resolution against including the 88,000-acre Scotchman Peaks area in the federal wilderness system—which advocates are watching as a potential threat to other pending wilderness designations. She replied vaguely. She supports wilderness designation, she said, “primarily because I like Scotchman Peaks. I used to go hiking up there, and I think there’s a lot of wildlife that are still there, and especially when we have our mountain goats.”

What about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recent rollback of plans that were designed over the course of a decade to protect the sage grouse on federal lands? (Zinke said he wanted to give states more flexibility, but the gesture was widely panned as a gift to extractive industries who can now operate with greater freedom in sage grouse habitat. Little’s boss, Governor Butch Otter, was a fierce critic of the federal proposals.) “You’ll have to excuse me,” Jordan said. “He made adjustments to it?”

These were not “gotcha” questions, and I was surprised by Jordan’s lack of depth. Over 60 percent of Idaho is public land, and the issues surrounding that land—from wilderness designations, to wildfires, endangered species protections, and the growing recreation economy—are among the most contentious in the west.

Even though Jordan lists “land and water preservation” as one of the four priorities on her campaign website, I knew she was running primarily on health care, education, criminal justice reform, and marijuana reform, so I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. We started talking about wilderness and the fight over the meaning of the word “access.” Does it mean access for mountain bikes, ATVs, hikers, and oil rigs?

“I know it’s important for many people to be able to get to those places and do what they like to do, so I guess as governor this is where it comes to be a hard crossroads for me,” Jordan said. “But I definitely want to keep the space open for people versus cutting it off. When it comes to the wilderness areas, I just think that management needs to be—there needs to be more management not less.”

“More management of what kind?”

“Meaning that people should, the people as in the forestry division needs to be able to get in there and assess these timber sites. I want to see more long-term sustainable management.”

“So you want to see timber management in wilderness?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said, “Like as in going in there to thin where we need to.”

This was noteworthy. As much as Republicans would love to open up wilderness study areas and roadless areas to development, no one really mentions logging in federally designated wilderness areas as a serious prospect. Environmental protections in wilderness areas are the strongest of all public land designations—stronger even than in the National Parks, which are often crisscrossed with roads and thrumming with cars and commercial activity. I asked several more times if Jordan was sure that she meant she thought we should be doing timber projects in wilderness areas.

“Like the Frank Church?” I asked.

Yes, she was sure. “I just think every so often it needs to be thinned to a point to where it’s healthy enough,” she said, “but not to be logging to clear-cut or anything like that.”

Behind the Scenes at a Bundy Rally

31 Oct

If there was a defining trait among the several dozen people who gathered recently to hear Ammon Bundy speak at the New Code of the West conference in Whitefish, Montana, it was their age—on average, well into eligibility for Social Security benefits. I don’t mention this to promote ageist ideas about who should be involved in political activism—the baby boomers comprise the largest voting bloc in America—but rather to suggest that the “Bundy movement,” such as it exists, appears conspicuously long in the tooth.

The event was hosted by a Kalispell-based group called This West Is OUR West. The group’s founder, Lauralee O’Neil, told me they spent $8,000 to rent the facility and provide a catered lunch. Perhaps it was the $150 price tag for the day’s event that kept younger attendees at bay, or perhaps it was a classic Montana scheduling conflict: Saturday, October 13, was the second-to-last day of big-game archery season. Whatever the reason, if the Whitefish event left me convinced of one thing, it’s that the Bundys and the fringe ideology they espouse has little purchase on young people—at least in this corner of the northern Rockies. And that ought to be encouraging to anyone who has worried in the nearly three years since the Bundys staged their takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon, that a new and vigorous anti–public land rebellion was catching fire. The opposite seems more likely. The Bundys’ antics—along with the efforts of the Trump administration and congressional Republicans to undermine environmental laws and regulations, shrink national monuments, and open millions of acres of public land and water to oil and gas development—have galvanized a movement around environmental and conservation advocacy that is nonpartisan and transgenerational.

bundy
Ammon Bundy holds up a bronze star medal he says was given to him by a veteran during the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff in early 2016. (Elliott D. Woods)

A crowd of 300 gathered at Whitefish Depot Park to protest the Bundy event, which was taking place at the Grouse Mountain Lodge, a mile and a half away. The competing rally was organized by the Montana Wilderness Association and Love Lives Here, a group affiliated with the Montana Human Rights Network and formed in response to white supremacist activity in the Flathead Valley. Judging by attendance, there’s no question which movement—Bundyites or public land advocates—has the numbers. Beyond Whitefish, the rapid growth of groups like Missoula-based Backcountry Hunters and Anglers illustrates the rising pro–public land consciousness in the West and across the country. Membership has doubled every year for the past four years, topping 18,000 in 2018. The group now has chapters in 39 states and two Canadian provinces and on dozens of college campuses. One wonders what the Bundys’ on-campus presence looks like.

I didn’t meet any of the protesters who turned out to Depot Park, because I spent the entire day listening to jeremiads about the Bilderberg Group and the United Nations’ machinations to implement one-world government. According to speakers at the Bundy event, shadowy international bureaucrats and billionaires are the font of such devious urban concepts as “sustainable development” and “smart growth.” Alex Newman—a bearded young correspondent for the John Birch Society’s New American magazine, whom the moderator hailed as “our next George Washington”—said these concepts are part of “a global war on farmers and ranchers and loggers.” The audience gasped knowingly. Newman went on to pull the old James Inhofe trick, suggesting that because an icebreaker got stuck in the sea ice off Antarctica one time in 2013, global warming clearly isn’t real. “I’ve interviewed dozens of these UN scientists,” said Newman, without mentioning any of the defectors’ names. “They told me [climate change] was a hoax, and no one would correct it, so they resigned.” Phew, I thought: I guess we don’t have to worry about the UN’s updated projections—which give us a mere 12 years to take drastic action to avoid Biblical climate catastrophes. (Conservative estimates place the scientific consensus at a minimum of 80 percent supporting the idea of human-caused climate change, with some estimates as high as 97 percent.)

There were shimmers of underlying anti-Semitism and white nationalism in some of the presentations, like when Washington state legislator Matt Shea channeled his inner Richard Spencer, shouting, “Let’s be American again! We are a Christian nation, and anyone who says we’re not is a liar…I think we need to be unashamed about our heritage and our history. Amen!” Spencer—whose parents live in Whitefish and who have paid a high price for their son’s racist neo-fascism, which they disavow—did not attend.

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Attendees listen to Ammon Bundy's remarks at the New Code of the West event. (Elliott D. Woods)

The UN’s Agenda 21 platform was the main lightning rod for the assembled conspiracy theorists. Drawn up in 1992 at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Agenda 21 is a legally nonbinding policy document that does not force anyone at any level of government of the 178 signatories to do anything. The document lays out strategies for “combating poverty,” “protecting and promoting human health conditions,” “combating deforestation,” “managing fragile ecosystems,” “recognizing and strengthening the role of indigenous people,” and that sort of thing. I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear global bureaucrats talking about “managing fragile ecosystems,” I think to myself: Charlie’s in the wire.

“You’d have to be pretty dang stupid not to be able to connect some of these dots,” said the moderator, Dan Happel, who hosts a podcast called Connecting the Dots. A retired commercial building contractor, Happel once served as finance chair of the Montana Republican Party and as a Madison County commissioner. An avuncular fellow with a warm smile, dressed in a blazer, khakis, and ostrich-skin slip-ons, Happel provided the highlight of my day when, in the midst of his presentation, he said, “You thought the Kavanaugh hearing sucked? These are quotes from the leading Democrats in the country.” He then read from a slide with quotes from Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker. Here’s one:

“Time and time again, we find progressive laws getting struck down,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a Senate address. “And it’s always—always—the ones the Constitution is against. These right-wing judges don’t think for themselves, they just do whatever the Constitution says. And it’s time for that to end.”

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Kerry White, a Republican member of the Montana legislature, talks to reporters outside of the This West is OUR West event. (Elliott D. Woods)

They perfectly fit Happel’s narrative about Democrats’ disregard for the Constitution. The problem was, the quotes were fake. They came from an article headlined “Senate Democrats Demand Supreme Court Nominee Not Be Unduly Influenced by U.S. Constitution” in the now-defunct Babylon Bee, a satirical online paper in the model of the Onion. Happel was not the only one to take these quotes out of their native habitat. Fox News contributor David Clarke—the erstwhile Milwaukee sheriff who caught hell for decking out his uniform with flair pins—recycled a meme with the same fake quotes.

The conference ground on for ten hours before Ammon Bundy finally took the mic to sing his paean about triumph over the murderous feds. This was the second Bundy event I’ve attended, and the script did not vary much: poorly substantiated interpretations of the Constitution mingled with tearful recitation of his family’s long “stand,” which most of us would just interpret as “breaking the law and getting away with it.” (The Bundys still owe more than $1,000,000 in unpaid federal grazing fees. Although several of their accomplices are doing time, the Bundys were acquitted of all charges for a 2014 standoff and the Malheur occupation, due to mishandling of evidence.)

Bundy wore a straw cowboy hat and a suit coat. Toward the end of his remarks, he pulled out a garment bag with items for show-and-tell. The first was a ball cap with the Army Airborne logo that he claimed was given to him by a vet. Bundy ratcheted up the totemic power of the items until he was holding up a bronze star medal, claiming a wheelchair-bound man who’d lost his legs “serving in the military” had given it to him at Malheur. Bundy told the audience about how he’d said he didn’t deserve it, because he’d never served, and the man “told me I was to never say again that I didn’t deserve it.” Next, Bundy pulled out a folded American flag, which he claimed was “presented to me by a man who said this flag was draped over his brother’s casket because he died serving this country.” Choking back tears, Bundy said, “This man gave me this flag, and he felt that this is what his brother died for…we were standing up for the very purpose his brother gave his life for.”

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Ammon Bundy talks to a supporter at the New Code of the West conference. (Elliott D. Woods)

To me, it all seemed like cheap theater, but maybe Bundy believes his own myth. Many in the room seemed to. Then again, they also looked on with jaws agape as Happel warned about the UN’s plans to “eliminate anywhere from 95 percent to 75 percent of our population.” While their credulity was astonishing and depressing, I doubt that these would-be crusaders present any meaningful threat to the future of public land or the republic on which it stands. They barely filled a small conference room. The only presenter who actually addressed a Montana public land issue in-depth was Kerry White, a Republican state legislator from Bozeman. White gave a talk on megafires, advocating for more thinning projects in national forests to reduce the severity of fires and boost the timber economy. While White’s interpretations of wildfire science would raise eyebrows in the company of scientists, the basic premise of thinning forests to minimize wildfires’ destructive capacity has bipartisan support in the West.

In an unexpected bit of drama, Bundy took the mic during the question-and-answer period and harangued White for tacitly acknowledging the federal government’s right to manage public land. Waving his weathered pocket Constitution, Bundy asked, “Do you see or do you not see that the control of our lands in federal hands is the problem?” White seemed taken aback. “I disagree with that,” he said. In a tense back-and-forth, White—a conservative warhorse in the Montana legislature, born and raised on his family’s ranch in the Gallatin Valley—refused to give in to Bundy. Exasperated, he said, “The people gave the government the power to do things for us. If they don’t do it correctly, it is the power of the people to change that. Does that make sense?” Indeed, it was the most sensible thing anyone said all day.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund Is Dead

5 Oct

The Land and Water Conservation Fund died quietly on Sunday night amid a news cycle dominated by the FBI’s inquiry into allegations of sexual misconduct by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and the staggering death toll from an earthquake in Indonesia. Created in the 1960s to direct revenues from offshore oil and gas development into a fund that would improve recreational opportunities for Americans, the LWCF is widely held up as the country’s single greatest tool for funding conservation. Throughout its lifetime, the LWCF has funded everything from playgrounds to battlefield monument preservation, fishing access sites, and easements across private land to provide access to public land. It had been in a febrile state since 2015, when House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, a Republican from Utah, allowed it to sunset at the end of its 50-year authorization. Congress eventually reached a deal for a three year temporary authorization, but the extension ended September 30.

LWCF expired despite the recent passage of a compromise bill in Bishop’s committee that would have permanently reauthorized the program, co-authored by ranking minority member, Democrat Raul Grijalva of Arizona. The Bishop-Grijalva compromise was hailed as a landmark moment in the evolution of Bishop’s stance on the LWCF. Bishop has been considered by many in the conservation world to be the LWCF’s biggest adversary. But one of his Natural Resources Committee aides told me that characterization is unfair. “Chairman Bishop has been painted as someone who’s opposed to the LWCF,” the aide said, “and I think this [bill] shows that’s not that case.”

Unfortunately, the House LWCF bill is still in limbo, and now the LWCF is moribund again. As of this week, reauthorization bills had passed out of committee in both chambers of Congress, and pro-LWCF politicians and conservation organizations are confident that the program will be resurrected. But when, and in what shape?

If the bill that passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday remains intact after floor debates and negotiations with the House, the LWCF could come out stronger than ever. Senator Maria Cantwell—a Democrat from Washington and the ranking minority member on the committee—won critical Republican support for the Land and Water Conservation Authorization and Funding Act, including enthusiastic yes votes from conservative senators Richard Burr of North Carolina, Steve Daines of Montana, and Cory Gardner of Colorado. Cantwell’s bill would permanently reauthorize the LWCF and fully fund the program to the $900 million annual cap set in 1978—about $3.6 billion in today’s dollars. That cap has only rarely been reached, and current funding levels are about half of that amount. 

As the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Christy Plumer explains, the LWCF is a “paper trust fund.” Despite its $900 million ceiling, there has never been a binding requirement in any LWCF legislation that revenues generated for the LWCF must actually go to the LWCF. “There’s no real trust fund for the LWCF in the treasury, they just move money around,” Plumer says. “It’s a promise that was never officially put into law... and we need to make new laws to make it a real trust fund.”

The dedicated funding component of the Cantwell bill would establish a real LWCF trust fund, liberating the program from the appropriations process that has hemorrhaged LWCF funds throughout most of its existence. “It’s a waste of time. Every year we are fighting for appropriations for LWCF, and every year we have no idea what’s going to happen,” says Tom Cors of the Nature Conservancy. “The original purpose is not being honored, and it’s dishonest budgeting to not use the money for its intended purposes.” 

“Congress shouldn’t have to worry about this because we have offshore oil and gas revenues from $3 billion to $17 billion per year, and yet we in the conservation community are fighting tooth and nail to get half of what was authorized in 1978,” Cors says. “I’d love to be in a place where we’re fighting to get between $3.1 and $3.6 billion.”

Cors says there’s demand in the conservation community for all $900 million and beyond, and that the inconsistent funding levels generate anxiety and doubt among landowners, conservation organizations, and federal agencies, which combine to prevent conservation projects from coming to fruition.

“Imagine a multiple-thousands-acre land deal with a landowner, with multiple funding streams coming together. Often conservation organizations put together those finances, bringing together federal dollars, private dollars, and state and local dollars. If two of the legs of that stool are steady and one gets wobbly, you can see how capital for a project will quickly disappear, and you end up not conserving a particularly attractive tract of land,” Cors explains.

According to Cors and other conservation advocates I spoke to, the dedicated funding component of the Cantwell bill is invaluable. “Reauthorization without funding doesn’t get us anywhere,” Cors says. “As we’ve seen with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, this is something everyone wants in their community. They want recreational opportunities and they want to preserve America’s cultural heritage, and without funding that’s not possible.”

Senate Republicans who supported Cantwell’s bill seem to agree about the importance of dedicated funding. A spokeswoman for Senator Daines says he will “continue to fight to get permanent reauthorization and full funding of LWCF across the finish line.” A staffer for Senator Burr says his “number one focus is that permanent reauthorization with full funding makes it to the Senate floor.”

The problem is that Congressman Bishop does not share his senate colleagues’ convictions about the importance of dedicated funding. After all the hype about the Bishop-Grijalva compromise—which does not mandate dedicated funding—Bishop told reporters last week that the dedicated funding component of the Senate bill “would probably blow it up in the House.” A Bishop aide I spoke to on Wednesday walked back his boss’s comments. “It’s still obviously an open negotiation,” the aide said. “The LWCF conversation in general is still very much an open negotiation.”

Bishop has already won at least one important concession in the House compromise bill: LWCF funds would be allocated according to a 40-40-20 split, with 40 percent going to state projects, 40 percent going to federal projects, and 20 percent directed at the president’s discretion. Previously, the breakdown of how LWCF funds were split between states and federal agencies was entirely at the president’s discretion. The new split addresses Bishop’s concerns about limiting new federal land acquisitions and a current priority among Republicans about increased state influence over public land management.

The House bill also includes a provision that would devote $20 million or 3 percent per year of annual LWCF funds—whichever is greater—toward improving access to public lands and waters. The Senate bill stipulates a minimum of 1.5 percent for improving access. Both bills’ access provisions are popular with conservation groups.

On the senate side, Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski has also expressed reservations about dedicated funding, but Cors says her willingness to allow the Cantwell bill to come to a vote this week—she voted no, but must have known it would pass anyway—shows that she is probably supportive of some kind of LWCF resurrection. “Our goal now will be to work with the House Natural Resources Committee to put together a consensus package encompassing a wide array of legislation we have reported and send it to the president’s desk by the end of the year,” Murkowski said.

With the House in recess and Congress entering a lame duck session, it seems unlikely that either of the LWCF bills will see action before the midterm elections. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers CEO Land Tawney expects LWCF legislation to move forward as part of a bigger legislative funding package before the end of the year, and he has been encouraged by the recent movement in both chambers of Congress.

“This has been a national priority, and it shows that people’s voices work,” says Tawney, who highlighted the broad bipartisan support for LWCF reauthorization in both chambers of Congress. The House bill has 240 co-sponsors, including 46 Republicans; the Senate bill has 46 co-sponsors, including 6 Republicans. “Bishop has been a stick in the mud,” Tawney says, but “he’s heard enough from his colleagues to make it happen.”

“The coalition that supports full funding is large and has support in both chambers. It’s really just Bishop’s and Murkowski’s personal preferences at this point that are holding LWCF up,” says Adam Sarvana, a House Natural Resources Committee staffer who works for Grijalva. “I think Bishop’s plan is to use that as a bargaining chip. Hypothetically, ‘I’ll give you some partial funding guarantee and in exchange, I want X, Y, and Z.’ The contours of what that negotiation might look like are a mystery to us. It’s a black box—Bishop is the only one with the answers, and he’s not talking.”

Is the DOI Strong-Arming National Park Leaders?

19 Jun

When I reached Superintendent Dan Wenk at his office in Yellowstone recently, I was half expecting a gloves-off rant from a man who is known as a cool head. Earlier in the month, Wenk had received a memorandum from National Park Service Deputy Director Dan Smith saying he was being reassigned to an executive position in Washington, D.C., despite his request to serve out his career at Yellowstone until his March 2019 retirement date.

“It’s a hell of a way to be treated at the end of four decades spent trying to do my best for the Park Service and places like Yellowstone, but that’s how these guys are,” Wenk told the Bozeman-based Mountain Journal. By the time I caught up with Wenk, he was candid but a little more reserved. “I expected a conversation,” he told me, referring to his retirement proposal to his superiors. “I expressed many times, ‘Can we just sit down and talk?’ The conversation I requested never happened.”

Wenk first heard of the potential reassignment in April but thought he could preempt it by announcing his retirement. At his age, 66, Wenk told me he has no interest in relocating to D.C. for a position that would take years to master. He had already been planning to retire and had even bought a retirement home two years ago near Rapid City, South Dakota. Wenk hoped publicly announcing his retirement would provide a little certainty to the many stakeholders who deal with the park on long-term issues and who had been treating him like a “lame duck” amid the rumors of his reassignment. If they knew he was staying on until March, Wenk figured, he’d have time to tie up loose ends, prepare the ground for his successor, and, perhaps most important, see through his long-standing commitment to relocate a group of Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck Reservation in northern Montana.

But the Park Service rejected Wenk’s proposal. In a letter dated June 4, signed by Dan Smith and Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, Wenk was given 60 days to accept his reassignment or retire.

I spoke to several current and former career Park Service officials at various levels, and none could remember someone with Wenk’s prestige and position being removed without cause—which is to say, without that person having done something really wrong to justify removal. Former Park Service director Jon Jarvis, who served throughout the Obama administration and retired in January 2017, says what is happening to Wenk fits a pattern in the Trump administration of “attacking the career civil servant.”

If Jarvis is right, then Wenk’s removal is indeed a major scandal. However, even if all of this amounts to nothing more than a mishandling of personnel matters—if Wenk’s outspokenness on controversial issues had nothing to do with the decision to remove him—the message to the rank and file and to other career officials is still chilling.

Wenk’s successor, Cameron Sholly, was officially named on June 13. Currently serving as the NPS Midwest regional director, Sholly will step into his new role amid controversy. The conservation community in the Yellowstone area and members of regional native tribes are alarmed by what they perceive as the disrespectful treatment of a leader who was able to move the needle on critical issues like the reestablishment of wild bison populations on native lands, who advocated for the creation of quota districts on the park’s northern border with Montana to shield wolves from hunting and trapping pressure, and who offered a lone dissenting voice in the interagency debates about removing the Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear population from the endangered species list. (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted Yellowstone grizzlies in June 2017, and Wyoming and Idaho will hold grizzly hunts later this year for the first time since the 1970s.)

For Caroline Byrd, director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a nonprofit focused on wildlife issues in the tristate region surrounding the park, the Wenk ordeal is, at best, an example of gross mismanagement. “It’s yet another rash decision that didn’t need to be this way,” Byrd says.

“I personally see it as an attack on the park,” says Jason Baldes, a research biologist and member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe who consults the tribe on wildlife and conservation issues. “[Wenk] was very supportive and understanding of our efforts and the reasoning behind wanting to restore bison for Native Americans.”

Over his seven and a half years at Yellowstone, Wenk earned a reputation as a peacemaker, liked and respected even by people who disagreed with him. John Varley, founding director of the Yellowstone Center for Resources, who first met Wenk in 1980 and worked with him in various capacities until his retirement in 2006, told me Wenk made more progress on the bison issue than any of his predecessors. “Solving a 90-year-old problem, even just getting it on the tracks, is hero work in my view. And Dan is that,” Varley says.

Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, a conservative Republican, praised Wenk for his successful resolution of long-simmering conflict over winter snowmobiling in the park. “We’ve had agreements and disagreements, and I have great respect for him,” Mead recently told the Washington Post. “He’s worked through some very difficult issues. I think he’s done a very good job.”

Recently, Wenk took on what may be the most thorny issue of all: Yellowstone’s surging visitation, up 45 percent since the turn of the century, surpassing 4 million per year. The boom has strained infrastructure, negatively affected visitors in the form of long bathroom lines and traffic jams, and put increasing pressure on wildlife. In response, Wenk commissioned scientific studies to learn how the park can better cope with the flood of visitors while preserving the wildlife, scenery, and natural resources “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” as the park’s mandate requires.

There is a significant chance that the data produced by the studies will lead to proposals to reduce or limit park visitorship, especially at popular spots like Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring. Any effort to limit visitorship is bound to cause conflict with concessionaires, commercial permittees, and businesses at the park entrances—but that possibility did not deter Wenk. “Everything you do in Yellowstone is controversial, and I follow that with thank God,” Wenk says. “Can you imagine if nobody cared?”

It might be that Wenk’s willingness to consider limiting park visitorship rankled Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who favors privatizing campgrounds and raising park entrance fees, and who has made it clear that he sees public lands as profit-generating entities. If that was the case, no one ever told Wenk. “I’ve never had any expression that they weren’t satisfied with what I was doing in my job.”

Conservationists and others concerned about the fate of the bison program may take some solace in the knowledge that Sholly, Wenk’s replacement, presided over the the transfer of some 800 bison from national parks under his administration to state and tribal lands in the Midwest. Secretary Zinke has also maintained support for the bison relocation program dating back to his time as a Montana congressman. I asked Zinke’s press secretary, Heather Swift, if he still supports the bison relocation program, and she replied, “Of course he does.”

But there are also the internal ramifications to consider. One senior park official, who asked not to be named, told me that Zinke and the top brass were sending a clear signal: “The message is keep your head down,” the official says. “There are things I’ve been doing that are just a normal part of my job…things I do that I need to get supervisor approval for, and it comes back as, ‘No, don’t do it, you may not survive this, and we don’t have the firepower to protect you.’”

For his part, Wenk, who has been in the Park Service for nearly half its existence, sounded an upbeat note for young park employees who may feel discouraged by the Trump administration’s conservation approach and by controversies over personnel issues. “The commitment they make to public lands will reward them many times over…It’s incredible that we have these places. We’re in the perpetuity business. Because of our protection, these places will be around—if we follow law, regulation, and policy—unimpaired for future generations.”

I asked him what he plans to do with his free time after August. “I used to have a single-digit golf handicap,” Wenk says, “so I’d like to get that back again.”

Ryan Zinke Is Sabotaging Our Best Public Lands Program

6 Jun

Way back in 1962, with World War II–generation parents eager to pack their baby boomer children into the station wagon and hit the open road for family adventure, President John F. Kennedy called for the creation of a fund that would siphon federal offshore oil revenues into projects to improve access to public land and water. The basic idea was that if the country was going to permit environmentally destructive activities like oil and mineral extraction, we at least ought to use a portion of the public revenues to preserve land and get people outdoors.

In response to Kennedy’s request, Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) in 1965. In the years since, it has become “the single most important program for protecting threatened access and opening up new access that the government has,” according to Whit Fosburgh, president of the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a nonpartisan group devoted to safeguarding critical wildlife habitat and guaranteeing all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.

As a Montana congressman prior to taking his cabinet post as secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke was the only Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee to vote for permanent reauthorization of the program when it was set to expire in 2015. As I mentioned in my profile of Zinke, he said at the time that he would make it a personal mission to win his Republican colleagues over to supporting LWCF.

“I know what is at stake if we lose this critical resource. This isn’t about politics; it’s about Montana. It’s time Congress gets on board,” Zinke said. But now that he’s no longer an elected office holder, it appears Zinke’s romance with the LWCF has ended. As secretary, he testified earlier this month in support of a budget that reduces LWCF funding to $8.1 million—roughly one-fiftieth of its 2018 allocation of $425 million, and less than 1 percent of its maximum allotment of $900 million.

Grilled by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) about the discrepancy, Zinke said, “The budget is a proposal, and this is where the two branches come together and discuss priorities.” In other words, Zinke seemed to be saying, Don’t take this budget seriously. What he did not do, however, is vigorously defend the LWCF and restate his earlier belief that the program should be permanently reauthorized and fully funded—a position he stood by as a junior congressman, even when it meant pissing off his committee chairman, Utah Republican Rob Bishop.

Over more than half a century, nearly $20 billion in LWCF funds have built fishing access sites on western rivers, parks and playgrounds, mountain bike trail systems, whitewater parks, swimming pools, rock climbing centers, access to outdoor climbing areas, and a host of other public works geared toward getting Americans outside to enjoy the best of what we own. The LWCF has also been a tool for land acquisition, allowing state and federal agencies to purchase small parcels of private ground that provide access to larger pieces of public land, and to purchase conservation easements that allow public recreators to cross private ground. “Sometimes a little postage stamp opens up miles of river,” Fosburgh says.

For example, in Zinke’s home state, the LWCF is chipping in $2 million to help buy 13,398 acres in the Flathead Valley that, among many other things, will bring the area’s local water supply into public control, will help the timber industry, protect local fish, protect the migration path of the sandhill crane, and ensure access to people who hike, bike, fish, and hunt. The project is in its final stages of completion and has received support from both of Montana’s senators.

So why is Zinke flip-flopping on something he once defended so vigorously?

There are two likely possibilities. The first is that Zinke is a good soldier, and he’s willing to abandon positions that once formed the bedrock of his political ethos in order to stay on team Trump.

The second possibility is that nothing changed: Zinke’s commitment to the LWCF was always superficial, and he simply realized back in 2015 that he could withstand the flak that came from bucking Bishop in order to win credibility at home in Montana. Whatever the answer, Zinke has become a bagman for an administration that wants to cut the program’s funding to a historic low.

The good news is that despite the Trump administration’s efforts, the majority of Congress—including many of Zinke’s fellow Republicans in both chambers—has essentially laughed the Trump-Zinke Interior budget out of the room. The LWCF has been funded to its full cap only twice and has not exceeded $450 million since 2005, because Congress usually redirects offshore revenues that should go to the LWCF into the general treasury for other programs. In the pending 2019 budget negotiations, Congress appears likely to allocate between $360 million and $425 million to the LWCF, though there could be significant changes from previous years in how federal and state recipients of funds will be able to spend the money. Specifically, Republicans want to see restrictions placed on the use of LWCF funds for land acquisitions.

If Zinke’s change in stance surprised his colleagues in Congress, it has certainly ruffled conservationists. But the political pragmatism Zinke was known for back in Montana may yet prevail. In May, Fosburgh attended a meeting at Interior Department headquarters with more than 20 conservation groups, running the gamut from far-left Defenders of Wildlife to the more moderate Nature Conservancy. According to Fosburgh, Zinke told the group that the LWCF is one of the most successful programs ever passed and should be fully funded. “It didn’t sound like lip service. It sounded sincere,” Fosburgh says.

I reached out to Zinke’s press secretary, Heather Swift, to ask if he does indeed still support permanent reauthorization and full funding of the LWCF. “Yes, and he has said that many times in public as well,” Swift responded. I wrote back to ask about the disconnect between Zinke’s support for the LWCF and the paltry funding level he asked for in his recent Interior Department budget proposal but received no response.

In September, the three-year reauthorization that Zinke fought to secure back in 2015 will expire. If Zinke does not find the nerve to speak up publicly for the LWCF, or if Congress doesn’t intervene, the fund will lapse into its most meager state since its creation.

Zinke’s Plan to Fund the Park Service Is Pure Fantasy

25 Mar

When I interviewed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke at Denali last year, he complained about how Interior’s revenues from natural resource commodities had crashed over the decade since President George W. Bush left office. “In 2008, just offshore, the DOI made about $18 billion a year,” he said. “Last year was $2.3 [billion].” Total oil and gas revenues were $21.6 billion in 2008, according to the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, compared to $4.3 in 2016, so there’s no doubt: It was a huge drop. As I mentioned in my profile of Zinke in the January issue of Outside, I asked him what caused the shortfall.

“The price of oil and gas declined. True, no doubt,” Zinke said. “But also, the regulatory framework in some cases became punitive and arbitrary.”

Zinke has a quick fix for this discrepancy: Hold a fire sale of public land and offshore energy leases and get government regulation “out of the way.” With these silver bullets, Zinke says he can drive revenues back toward the high-water mark, and he intends to: Zinke says he’ll use the windfall to pay for nearly $12 billion worth of deferred maintenance in the national parks.

Zinke calls this plan the Public Land Infrastructure Fund, linking it to President Trump’s pledge to rebuild America’s highways and bridges. On March 7, a mostly Republican group of senators introduced a bill modeled on the concept. “Our parks and refuges are being loved to death,” Zinke said in recent comments about Trump’s 2019 budget, which would cut Interior’s funding by close to $2 billion, or about 13.3 percent. The budget also zeroes out most conservation grants to the National Park Service and the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Zinke went to bat for as a Montana congressman. But not to worry: The Public Land Infrastructure Fund initiative, according to Interior’s fiscal year 2019 Budget Justification, “has the potential to generate up to $18 billion over ten years” for parks and other public lands infrastructure.

The idea that Americans should throw open the gates on public lands and the seafloor to energy developers, inviting landscape and habitat degradation in order to raise funds to fix roads and bathrooms in the national parks, is a tough sell. Especially when we’re asked to entrust this plan to what may be the most overtly anti-conservation administration in history. On the economic side, it’s also a fantasy.


For starters, the years Zinke cites as his bookends are not representative. In 2008, when Interior brought in $15.7 billion in oil and gas revenues, oil hit an all-time high of more than $140 per barrel. Then the global recession sharply reduced demand and sent prices tumbling to about $40, a collapse that was compounded by OPEC manipulations and an oil glut caused by rapid expansion of fracking operations. North American natural gas prices took an even wilder ride, tumbling from a peak of about $15 per MMBtu in 2005 to less than $2 at the lowest point in 2016. Oil prices have since climbed back above $60, and gas prices are hovering around $3, but not much of any of this has to do with deregulation, federal energy policy, or Trump.

“Ryan Zinke can talk as much as he wants about energy dominance, and they can offer the entire West for lease,” says Jesse Prentice-Dunn, advocacy director for the Center for Western Priorities. “But just saying that is not going to make that happen.”

This is where Zinke’s dreamscape is most vivid: In the low-price environment of a saturated energy market—especially one in which the biggest plays are on private land—there’s not much demand for new public land and offshore energy leases. If there aren’t many bidders, there won’t be many new leases, which means there won’t be much in the way of new production or royalties.

“The market is screaming, ‘We don’t want these leases,’” says Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation. O’Mara highlighted the recent lease offering on the Northern Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) as an example. In October, the Bureau of Land Management offered leases on 900 tracts in the NPR-A totaling 10.3 million acres. Only seven tracts, amounting to about 80,000 acres, received bids, generating a grand total of $1.16 million in fees, half of which went immediately to the state of Alaska. The same thing happened last August, when the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management offered the biggest offshore lease sale in U.S. history: 14,220 blocks totaling 76 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico. The government received successful bids for just 90 tracts totaling about 500,000 acres. O’Mara says that what’s being bid on now is “a fraction of nothing.”

Zinke increased available onshore acreage sixfold from the previous year but ended up leasing fewer acres for about the same amount of money. Lack of market-driven competition means low bid prices, and data assembled by the Center for American Progress shows that 29 percent of lease sales in 2017 received only the minimum bid. Bonus money paid on the front-end of a lease sale—roughly equivalent to the bid price—is often the only significant government revenue from a lease. That’s because companies develop only some of the leases they take on, which is one reason factoring royalties from future production borders on the impossible. The other reason is that no one can accurately predict energy prices a year from now, let alone five or ten years out.

One thing we know is that companies aren’t usually excited to spend large amounts of capital on new production in slow markets. After all, adding supply only widens the glut. This partly explains why oil and gas producers were sitting on more than 7,500 unused onshore drilling permits at the end of 2015, while in 2016, less than half of the country’s 27.2 million acres of leased land was in production. And while those companies sit on the land, Judith Kohler, communication manager for the National Wildlife Federation, says the “BLM will often refuse to manage areas for recreation, conservation, and wildlife.” In an example from a recent Colorado planning process, Kohler says, “BLM decided against managing lands for protection of wilderness characteristics in the Grand Hogback unit based specifically on the presence of oil and gas leases, even though the leases were nonproducing.”


In Denali, Zinke told me something I’ve heard him repeat elsewhere, including in his recent remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC): “It is better to produce energy here, under reasonable regulation, than watching it produced overseas with no regulation…If you want to watch how energy should not be produced, invite people to take a tour of the Middle East or Africa.”

Zinke seems to want to burden Interior with the same “resource curse” that plagues producers like Iraq, Nigeria, and Libya. “In general, the idea of using resources to develop infrastructure in national parks isn’t a bad idea,” says Mark Haggerty, a researcher and economist at Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based land management think tank. “But in practice, what it leads to is that you become dependent on that revenue stream, and you can’t afford to not develop [those resources]. You start to make poor choices on how to manage land you privilege extraction over other options that might have better economic outcomes. That dependence can actually discourage economic diversification and growth.”

You don’t have to go to Nigeria to understand the resource curse. Go to Scranton, Pennsylvania, and ask about the collapse of the anthracite coal industry. Travel to the Iron Range of northern Minnesota and see the hollowed-out port cities of Lake Superior. Go to Youngstown, Ohio, and ask about the decline of American steel. Or read in a newspaper today about the budget crises states like Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Alaska are currently experiencing because of their overly energy-dependent economies.

“The West has done a really good job of moving forward with a burgeoning recreation economy and diversification, and what this administration seems to be doing is wrecking any semblance of balance and multiple use,” says Robert Godby, director of the Energy Economics & Public Policies Center at the University of Wyoming. “This Interior Department is turning back the clock to a time that the West had really moved past, when extractive industries were king and all communities in the West were held hostage to that boom and bust cycle.”


At CPAC, sharing the stage with Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, Zinke said that “we produce here today about 10.3 million barrels a day in this country, and for the first time in 60 years we’re a net exporter of liquid natural gas, and that’s President Donald Trump.”

Zinke was misrepresenting some pretty basic facts. While Trump’s pro-energy, pro-pipeline, and deregulatory policies may have thawed a few investors still reeling from the recent slump, it will be a long time before we’ll know whether deregulation and lease sales have moved the needle one way or the other.

The fracking boom happened during the Bush and Obama administrations, and the United States was going to become a net exporter of liquid natural gas no matter who won in 2016. According to a report by Deloitte, the consulting and financial advisory company, optimism about the U.S. energy industry is focused on cost-reduction strategies, including new technology, that cut the break-even price for frackers in half.

To push revenues to 2008 levels, Zinke would have to do more than sell leases and help companies shortcut environmental regs. He would also have to figure out how to wield OPEC-like control over the global energy market, and that would probably mean looking for ways to clamp down on current production, not ways to increase it.

Since early 2017, OPEC has been ratcheting down supply to drive prices toward a goal of $70 to $80 per barrel, and while its disciplined cuts have played a large role in oil’s tepid recovery, U.S. supply expansion has had the opposite effect.

Even if the United States could turn the global energy market on a dime, an increase in oil prices to the $140 per barrel mark that helped generate $15.7 billion in revenues in 2008 would make fuel heinously expensive, putting a gallon at or above $4. In such an environment, Americans at the middle and lower ranges of the income spectrum suffer most. Americans feeling the pinch at the pump are less likely to pile their kids in the car and head to the national parks, and they’re less likely to spend the money along the way that drives the outdoor recreation economy, which now amounts to $887 billion, and which has helped cure western states of the resource curse.


You can always see an upside somewhere if you squint hard enough, but Zinke’s deregulatory and leasing frenzy just doesn’t make sense if you take him at his word—that he strives to be the “steward of our greatest holdings,” inspired by the conservation ethic of Teddy Roosevelt and founding U.S. Forest Service director Gifford Pinchot. It only makes sense if he’s doing favors for the industry lobbyists he’s surrounded himself with at Interior, and for the companies whose interests they serve.

Only then does it make sense to open the entire Pacific and Atlantic seaboards to oil leasing against the wishes of millions of citizens and numerous governors; or for Zinke to kill the Obama-era methane rule, which holds oil and gas producers responsible for gas wasted by leaky pipes and excessive flaring; or for Zinke to reduce the minimum royalty rates for shallow-water oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico from the 18.75 percent proposed by the Obama administration to 12.5 percent—a gift that Zinke now wants to extend to deepwater operations.

And only if Zinke is concerned more for the welfare of industry than the multiple-use stewardship of public lands does it make sense that Zinke would fight to help coal companies continue to skirt royalty reforms designed to stop them from dodging fair-value payments.

Zinke essentially confirmed where his loyalties lie at an energy conference in Houston earlier this month, saying, “Interior should not be in the business of being an adversary. We should be in the business of being a partner.”

This could not be further from the Roosevelt-Pinchot model of multiple use. Roosevelt believed limited resource extraction could occur on federal lands and waters while still safeguarding resources and wildlife, but it was the latter prerogative that dominated his conservation ethos. “As a people we have the right and the duty…to protect ourselves and our children against the wasteful development of our natural resources,” Roosevelt said at a White House conference on conservation in May 1908. Teddy would have blown his lid at the suggestion that Interior should be “in the business.”

Zinke’s job is not to increase the competitiveness of federal land in the natural resources market. His job is to steward the nation’s prized public lands, waterways, and oceans and our tremendous wealth of wildlife. His job is to defend our natural resources against corporate exploitation and to jealously guard our last remaining refuges from an increasingly noisy and chaotic world.

Overseeing development is part of the job, but it’s nowhere near the heart of it.

How Mike Foote Set an Obscure 24-Hour Skiing Record

20 Mar

Residents of Whitefish, Montana, were curious about why the ski resort just north of town left the lights on all night. Night skiing ended March 3, and now it was Saturday, March 17—Saint Patrick’s Day. If they had pulled out binoculars, they would have caught glimpses of a lone headlamp inching up Ed’s Run, a steep intermediate shot that drops right into the mountain village. That headlamp belonged to professional ultrarunner Mike Foote, 34, of Missoula, who was attempting to break the world record for most vertical feet climbed and skied in 24 hours.

Austrian ski-mountaineering racer Ekkehard Dörschlag set the existing record—60,350 feet—back in 2009. Foote was shooting for 61,200 feet with a plan to make 60 laps of the 1,020-foot Ed’s Run. At about 9 p.m. on Friday night, he was more than halfway done, with 31 laps under his belt in less than 12 hours. But the conditions were deteriorating as snow that had warmed and melted during the day began to freeze into chunks the size of small hailstones.

Foote’s skis were beginning to slide backwards on the last pitch of the run, which was the coldest, windiest, and steepest. His laps were gradually slowing down as his body started to show the effects of the more than 30 miles he had already skinned, all of it straight up. He’d built a buffer that morning under an unusually blue sky—Whitefish Mountain Resort is famous for its inversions—shaving more than two minutes from his projected average of 24 minutes per lap for the first 20 laps. By late afternoon, Foote had bought himself two laps’ worth of time—but now the knife was cutting the other way.

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Foote steps off on the final lap at about 8:00 a.m. on Sunday, March 18. Alyson Gnam hands him fluids and food as he moves. (Elliot Woods)

At the base of the run, Foote’s support crew of more than a dozen friends manned a folding table with homemade snacks and an assortment of fluids, like water mixed with Skratch Labs supplements and warm tea. Foote was burning an average of 500 calories per hour—twice what he consumes while running. His crew made sure to have a pair of skis waiting for him with skins already mounted so Foote wouldn’t have to waste a second during transitions. He skidded down from lap 31 and made a sweeping turn around a stake planted in the snow that served as the official lap marker. He popped out of one pair of 65-millimeter-waisted pink and green Dynafit race skis and stepped right into the next pair. Without a moment of pause, Foote stepped off.

A support crew member walked beside him for the first hundred yards, holding a bag of potato chips and a plate with boiled sweet potato slices, preopened energy gels, and bacon-and-rice balls. Foote gobbled as much as he could stomach, took a swig of Coca-Cola from a two-liter bottle, and said, “I should do this more often.” He mustered a half-smile and was off again into the night.


Foote grew up in Jefferson, Ohio, a town of a few thousand an hour east of Cleveland. The highest point in Ashtabula County is Owens Mound, which, at 1,150 feet, is not quite 600 feet higher than nearby Lake Erie. Needless to say, Foote was not born with hooves like his rivals in the Pyrenees and the Alps, or like his longtime friend and training partner Luke Nelson, a native Idahoan and a top-ranked American skimo racer and ultrarunner.

Foote didn’t start running in the mountains until 2004, when he moved to Missoula to study environmental science at the University of Montana. He had been a baseball player in high school, but out West he quickly developed a love of trail running and started competing in short races around Missoula. After working a few years as a raft guide in Glacier National Park and a ski patroller at Whitefish Mountain Resort, Foote moved back to Missoula and took a job at the Runner’s Edge, where he eventually became the race coordinator.

In 2009, Foote ran his first ultra, the Wasatch Front 100-Mile Endurance Race. “I had no expectations. I just wanted to survive,” Foote told me. He ended up finishing in the top ten. “I caught the bug then,” he said, “but I didn’t ever want to do a 100-miler again. It was horrible. Super painful. My body was destroyed. I just wasn’t used to it.” After that first 100-miler, Foote’s feet were so beat up that he didn’t run a step for six weeks. But he was hooked. In the years since, he’s finished second in the Hardrock 100 in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains three times and snagged two top-ten finishes in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc 100, which runs through the mountains of France, Italy, and Switzerland. Now it only takes about a week of rest after a 100-miler before Foote starts running again.

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Foote rounds the turnaround pole at the top of Ed's Run. (Elliot Woods)

Foote devotes his winters to high-intensity skimo races all over the world. The idea of setting a new vert record came to him in July 2017, after Hardrock. He wanted to do something on skis that would emulate the roughly 24-hour effort of a 100-mile race. It was only after he came up with the idea that he found Dörschlag’s record. “It was pretty esoteric,” Foote said.

His girlfriend, Katie Rogotzke, 30, a nurse practitioner who has completed a 50-kilometer race, captained his support team. “I was pretty incredulous,” she told me with a laugh as she changed out Foote’s skins between laps. Rogotzke said she never doubted him once he made the decision to train for the record. “He’s super steady. He likes faraway goals and getting into a Zen state of focus,” she said. “And the steeper the better.”


To prepare for the feat, Foote worked with coach Scott Johnston, who co-founded Uphill Athlete with legendary alpinist Steve House. Johnston said determining a race pace was the primary challenge in designing a training program for such a niche event. They settled on a goal of 2,560 feet per hour, including an anticipated average descent time of about 3.5 minutes per hour.

“Once we knew that was the race pace, we had to design a training schedule to optimize his physiology for that pace and develop his efficiency strategy,” Johnston said. Since Foote had such a depth of training experience from 100-mile and skimo races, Johnston said it was “just a matter of extrapolating” what they already knew about his metabolism and applying it to the unique demands of going uphill at a consistent grade for 24 hours. In the training jargon, Foote trained himself to become highly “monodirectional.”

“Rather than going out and doing shorter high-intensity work that’s faster than race pace,” Johnston said, “we needed to make him very efficient at that particular pace.” Foote’s training began last November and reached its apex in early February with two back-to-back 22,000-foot days at Montana Snowbowl, in Missoula. Foote stashed a duffel bag in the trees and set a skin track in fresh snow and banged out laps for about eight hours each day, proving to himself that he had the fitness to maintain race pace for at least a third of the distance, even alone and unsupported in less than optimum conditions.

Unfortunately, those two days took an unexpectedly severe toll on Foote’s body. “He didn’t recover well from the workout. It put him in a hole, and it took awhile for him to climb out,” Johnston said. “We had to go into emergency mode after that, but it’s a testament to Mike that he got the train back on the track again.” Johnston said he was confident Foote could’ve broken the 60,000-foot record then, and when race week finally came around, he told Foote, “The money’s in the bank. You know what you need to do.”

Foote said he had “a lot of nerves” on the day of the event and that he actually began to doubt himself during the first few laps. “I didn’t feel good at all. My heart rate was through the roof. It was just not clicking. I was sweaty,” Foote said. “But then I set into a groove. Having an aid station every 30 minutes forced me to eat and kept my energy levels constant.” The darkest hours of night were the most challenging, not least because the icy conditions forced Foote to yard on his poles to power through the final pitch, which was demoralizing in addition to creating an unanticipated energy demand.

By then, Foote had pacers leading him up the hill, including Nelson, which allowed him to turn off his brain and focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Foote’s community of support from his years as a ski patroller at the mountain paid off. The grooming machines came through and ran extra laps on the downhill portion of the run to soften the snow. At the beginning of the day, the downhill had been Foote’s only rest period. By 3:00 a.m., his quads were shattered, his feet were torn up, and he was screaming in pain with every turn on the downhills.

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Foote takes a swig of champagne after breaking the world record. (Elliot Woods)

“When the sun started coming up, I started to feel good,” Foote told me, “or maybe I was just smelling the barn.” His pace had slowed to about 27 minutes per lap, but he was still barely within the window to complete 60 laps in less than 24 hours. When he finished lap 59, Foote officially broke the record with 60,180 feet gained. “The last couple of hours I thought, ‘I feel stable enough—this is probably going to happen,’” Foote told me from his bed at a nearby condo an hour after the finish.

“I felt a little emotional. I put a lot into this. It’s definitely one of the biggest goals of my life so far, and I was very much not confident that I’d be able to pull it off as the day approached. So I felt happy,” Foote said. “But I didn’t really have time to think about it, because we wanted to get an extra lap.” A dozen of his friends stepped off with him for the final lap, and with Nelson pacing him, Foote left them scrambling to catch up. Lap 60 was one of the fastest of the entire effort. He finished with five minutes to spare.

Ryan Zinke Shows His True Colors

24 Jan

Practically the entire membership of the National Park System Advisory Board resigned last week in protest, claiming they’d been frozen out by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. In the nine months since Zinke’s confirmation, members of the board said they were unable to secure a single meeting with the cabinet official to whom they were congressionally mandated to report.

Board chairperson and former Alaska governor Tony Knowles expressed this frustration—using a diplomatic tone void of rancor—in a letter tendered on behalf of the group. Under any other administration, the interior secretary’s office probably would have issued a boilerplate statement and let the news cycle wash the unpleasantness away. But these are different times. Before the day was over, Zinke’s deputy undersecretary, Todd Willens, released an insult-laden response via press secretary Heather Swift, calling the Knowles letter a “hollow and political stunt.”

“We welcome their resignations,” Willens wrote, “and would expect nothing less than quitting from members who found it convenient to turn a blind eye to women being sexually harassed at National Parks.”

Willens went on to accuse the former board members of unduly “taking credit for the extensive work of private companies” during the 2016 National Park centennial campaign and called it “patently false” that the Department of the Interior had not engaged with the board. “As recently as January 8, we were working with the board to renew their charter, schedule a meeting, and fill vacancies.” As if to say good riddance, Willens wrote, “We have a number of individuals who have expressed interest in joining the board and we will now fast track filling these new vacancies with people who are actually dedicated to working with the Department to better our national parks.”

“It’s outrageous,” former board member Gretchen Long tells me from her home in Wilson, Wyoming. “I knew this kind of rhetoric came from the White House, but to see it come from the DOI and the secretary—the same style of degrading and discrediting and lies, frankly dishonest information—I was appalled.”

Long, a graduate of Harvard Business School with conservation and outdoor education bona fides that include chairing the National Outdoor Leadership School and the National Parks Conservation Association, tells me that no board members had been contacted on January 8 about a future meeting. Knowles also denied receiving any correspondence from Zinke’s office on that day. As for the jibe about the centennial project, Long calls it “hogwash.”

“There were private companies, but also 200 citizen groups and nonprofits. The work was spread out with everyone’s involvement. Public, private, not-for-profit—that’s what made it so successful, and some might say too successful,” Long says, referring to back-to-back record-breaking annual visitation numbers at some parks that have stressed staff and infrastructure.

Knowles, the board’s now-former chairperson, is a Vietnam War veteran and was an oil-rig roughneck before he became governor of Alaska. He tells me the accusation of political stunting actually made him laugh. “This is the least political body I’ve ever been with. We’re just a bunch of wonks, and everyone just loves to get around and talk policy,” he says. “I’d have no idea what party these people belonged to.”

Congress established the all-volunteer, nonpartisan NPS Advisory Board in 1935 to advise the Park Service director and interior secretary on big-picture policy. In recent years, that meant recommending official historic landmarks, suggesting ways to incorporate climate-change concerns into park management planning, diversifying the constituency of visitors, and planning for the centennial. The majority of the outgoing board’s terms were set to expire in May 2018, so a transition was forthcoming, but no one expected this bitter turn.

“Our resignation was not something that we came to lightly,” Knowles says. But after nearly a year of watching Zinke reverse the previous administration’s orders (notably, bans on lead ammunition in wildlife refuges and plastic bottles in national parks, and a director’s order to factor climate mitigation into park management), as well as plans to increase entrance fees and privatize campgrounds—all without any board consultation—the members felt they had no choice. “It’s like being on the phone and someone puts you on hold for a year,” Knowles says. “At some point you have to hang up.”

Neither Knowles nor Long found the quip about the board’s alleged inaction on sexual harassment within the NPS amusing. Personnel management doesn’t fall under the board’s legislative mandate, and Knowles says he thinks the Zinke team fired back with the sexual harassment barb as a diversionary tactic. “I was really sad to see that a secretary, through a spokesperson, would resort to mudslinging and character assassination to distract the discussion from what I thought were some very legitimate points that we were trying to raise.”

I’ve been tracking Zinke closely for about a year. Last December, I wrote a profile for this magazine on the secretary. And while I suspect he’s given up on conservation, I thought Zinke would maintain the veneer of respectability befitting both a former military officer and his current position. Here again, however, Zinke has revealed how little he resembles his proclaimed hero, Teddy Roosevelt.

The 26th president’s carefully balanced speeches frustrated his supporters in the progressive movement, who wanted Roosevelt to thump his enemies with his legendary rhetorical hammer. Tempting as it may have been, Roosevelt never hurled personal insults from his “bully pulpit” and almost never called out enemies by name. As Edith Halford Ryan notes, Roosevelt’s inclusive rhetoric contributed to his image as “just and impartial” and “seeking the best for his nation.”

The fact that Roosevelt, a century later, still holds a vaunted place in the collective memory has as much to do with his meticulous word choice as with any of his policies. Make no mistake: Trump’s Twitter account isn’t a bully pulpit—it’s just the plaything of a bully. And now, a year after Trump’s inauguration, we’ve all grown a little too used to the new normal—a state of public discourse in which, almost daily, and sometimes hourly, the highest elected officer takes cheap shots at anyone who dares to criticize him, from the loftiest senators in his own party to everyday citizens. Still, I held out a sliver of hope that Trump’s total disregard for civility might be contained; that it wouldn’t rub off on his cabinet, or on the system writ large; that political appointees like Zinke might at least maintain the old standards of decorum—those simple, unwritten rules that have helped our government function through dire political crises over the course of the century and a half since the Civil War. Suffice it to say, the Interior Department’s response to the NPS board resignations did not kindle my hope.

“The part about this that’s strange is the sheer lack of respect,” says Kristen Brengel, vice president of government affairs for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association and someone who has worked in conservation policy since the George W. Bush years. “This is a group of volunteers who care deeply about the parks, who spend their time advising on issues where they have an interest and a specialty,” she says. “They work in a very nonpartisan fashion, and they shouldn’t have been criticized.”

I asked Brengel if she thought the response was a knee-jerk misfire by overeager staffers without approval from Zinke. She says it is not likely that such an important and public document would leave the Interior Department without Zinke’s approval. “No way that someone has free reign to make that choice for the secretary,” she says. And, crucially, Zinke hasn’t rebutted any part of Willens’ letter. However, Brengel didn’t discount the possibility of pugnaciousness on the part of Zinke’s staffers. “In D.C.,” she says, “the way things typically operate is that you reflect the people you work for.”

Faced with a choice between taking the high road and grabbing two fistfuls of mud, Zinke’s team chose the latter. And if Zinke’s team reflects their leader, then surely Zinke reflects Trump just as clearly. So what does Zinke mean when he says, as he did during the conference call with reporters in which he bashed Patagonia, “I don’t yield to pressure, only higher principle”?

Where is the higher principle in slagging a group of nonpartisan volunteers?