Not that anybody ever really doubted it, but if you had, one look at him, that first day on the job, would have settled it for you. O.K. Yup. This thing was plainly going to jump the rails, soon, and as noisily as possible. There he was, dressed up like Yosemite Sam and riding through the streets of Washington on a frigging horse like he was the rootinest, tootinest cow puncher West of the Pecos. I’m not making this up. I can prove it, look:
Yessir, thar’s a new Sheriff in that there Department of the Interior, and his name is Zinke, call him Ryan. He’s from Big Sky Country, so’s you’d best hold off on any a’yer usual guff. (Oh, and Officer, I assume you’ll know what to do with Old Paint here when I climb the granite steps to assume my sworn duty etc. etc., I mean, I can’t tie him up out front, can I?).
The role of Secretary of the Interior is to act as ultimate steward to most of the over 640 million acres of land owned by the Federal Government, almost a third of the whole country. It’s not glamorous like State, and it doesn’t hog the headlines like Defence, but it’s an extraordinarily important post. That public land is indescribably precious, full of rolling grasslands, the pristine wilds of almost 2/3 of the entire State of Alaska, all manner of national parks, sites designated as national monuments, national historic sites, even historic battlefields like Gettysburg, Shiloh, Little Big Horn, and Harpers Ferry. The Department of the Interior is responsible for the preservation of this:
And this, too:
This is the mission statement posted on its web page:
The Department of the Interior (DOI) conserves and manages the Nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage for the benefit and enjoyment of the American people, provides scientific and other information about natural resources and natural hazards to address societal challenges and create opportunities for the American people, and honors the Nation’s trust responsibilities or special commitments to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and affiliated island communities to help them prosper.
Sounds like a worthy and indeed noble undertaking, doesn’t it? Just as it should be. But then there’s this jarring sentence just below under the heading “Vision”:
Promote energy dominance and critical minerals development to create jobs for Americans, insulate our nation from volatile political developments overseas, provide additional energy security to allies via surplus domestic supply, and generate revenue for all levels of government so they in turn have the resources to better serve the American people.
Promote energy dominance? Minerals? Revenue? Hunh? I thought the idea was to make sure there was always a home where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play, to see to it that the Painted Desert stays painted, and to keep an eye out so some yahoo doesn’t sneak in and build a resort/spa/luxury condo tower in Monument Valley. You know, preserve and protect America’s natural wonder and beauty. What’s money from energy got to do with it?
Well, see, all his political life Ryan Zinke was essentially a shill for the oil industry, though he was happy to help out the coal interests too. As a Congressman, he repeatedly voted against environmental measures that would impede oil and coal extraction, to the point that the League of Conservation Voters gave him a rating of 4/100, which was better than Ted Cruz, who got a 0, but not quite as good as Mark Rubio, who netted a 6 (latest figures 2016). To him and the folks he ran with, “Drill, Baby, Drill” was too tepid a slogan, as it did nothing to promote strip mining.
This made him a natural for a high posting in Trumplandia, where he was just one of several foxes put in charge of America’s most vital Departmental henhouses, and he knew just what he wanted to do. All that grass and rocks and forests and shit that the government was sitting on wasn’t doing any good for anybody, and everybody knew there were tons and tons, damned near limitless quantities, of stuff worth digging and fracking under there, if only it was opened up to good old capitalist endeavour. The treasure was just lying there! With nobody digging it up!
So, he started hacking away at the areas that had been set aside as protected, a lot of them by that sumbitch Obama. When he had them redraw the boundaries of the Big Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, he presided over the largest reduction of protected lands in US history. He did away with the moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands. He abolished regulations that were designed to mitigate the hellish effects of oil industry practices like methane venting, and flaring. He also got the Department out of all that science crap, on which they’d been wasting way too much of their time, trying to track the impact of so-called global warming, whatever that was. He also put the kibosh on a study into the impact of coal mining on human health. Watching the recent wildfires as they all but incinerated the entire California interior, Zinke blamed environmental extremists for getting in the way of forest management – the damned crybabies were always trying to stop you from cutting down trees, and now the woods were choking with the bloody things.
It was, in short, going swimmingly, but then he had to go and ruin everybody’s fun by being outlandishly corrupt in just about every way his Department made opportune. Some of it was, as these things go, penny-ante stuff. He just loved to take the family along and travel on the public dime, and made profligate use of private planes wherever he went. He once chartered a jet to the tune of $12,000 and change, which just happened to belong to an oil industry executive. He was fond of being buzzed about in government helicopters, too, it was so much faster and less tedious than the two and three-hour limo rides he thus avoided. One such hop, provided by the Park Police, was to drop him off on some nice Federal land where he could take a no doubt leisurely horseback ride with Mike Pence.
In a government that spends 4 trillion bucks a year, the cost to move Zinke around in the manner to which he’d grown accustomed didn’t even amount to 2 minutes worth of interest on the most recent fiscal year’s deficit, but it looked bad, and he wouldn’t stop doing it.
There were other irritants. Once he submitted a bill for $25,000 to cover the costs of “security” on a family trip to Turkey. He apparently spent about $140,000 to upgrade three sets of doors in his office, though he had some spokesperson claim that he didn’t know about it. If that was true, and his Department really was treating 140 grand as petty cash that could be dispensed without the boss’s approval, that was arguably worse.
Then there was the more consequential stuff. The Inspector General started sniffing around how Interior had handled a casino project in Connecticut, and how the redrawing of boundaries on some national monuments seemed to benefit cronies. Then there was this strange real estate deal in Zinke’s home state of Montana, which appeared to involve the use of his office to benefit himself and his family, in cahoots with a group backed by the chair of mega-corporation Halliburton. That got the Department of Justice interested. If their investigation reveals wrongdoing, Zinke could find himself up on charges under federal conflict of interest laws.
It was all bringing too much heat to an already boiling Trump World. On average, Zinke’s various escapades prompted about one official investigation for each month of his tenure, saddling him with almost as many as Trump himself, and finally he had to go. Lord, how I wish they could send him back out of town on the horse he rode in on, but I guess we should be grateful if he doesn’t depart Washington on one last chartered Learjet.
No doubt Zinke deserves the bum’s rush he’s finally getting, but it must sting a little, as he clearly enjoyed the hell out of being Secretary of the Interior, and really got into the pomp and circumstance. Did you know that the Department has an official flag? It does! Here’s a picture:
Zinke thought that was just great, and he had them make up a special version just for him, so he could adopt a practice which until then had been associated mainly with the movements of the English Monarchy, as the Queen shuttled between the various estates held by the House of Windsor. Whenever he wasn’t travelling, but behind his desk upstairs, he had them raise his Standard above the building. When he left, they took it down. This seemed a fitting way to signal his presences and absences to the general public. There was no precedent for this protocol, though, and many found it a little presumptuous (party poopers), so I guess we won’t be seeing this any more:
Or maybe we will. Here’s the punch line: any delight to be taken in Zinke’s removal from office is almost entirely squelched upon learning that the deputy who replaces him is one David Bernhardt. He used to be a paid lobbyist for the fossil fuels industry. He believes everything Zinke believed, and wants everything Zinke wanted for the precious wild spaces of the American hinterland, only more so.
Zinke had them make up a flag for Bernhardt, too, and it flew whenever the Secretary was off to Turkey, or out riding horses with Mike Pence. This was all Zinke’s idea, but who knows, maybe Bernhardt took a liking to it.