An estimated 88 percent of the National Park Service’s parkland and nearly half of the SMMNRA were burned in the Woolsey fire. After two years as Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke resigned under a cloud of controversy and ethics violations. Critics say he has done extensive damage to all parks under Interior’s control, not just the fire-ravaged area of the SMMNRA.
Less than a month after surveying the Woolsey Fire damage with Governor Brown, Ryan Zinke has resigned as Secretary of the Interior. His departure, however, is unlikely to dispel the cloud under which he is leaving.
A former Montana congressman, Zinke is being investigated on allegations of multiple ethics violations. The most damning is a Justice Department criminal investigation into a real estate deal in Montana between the Zinke family and a development group backed by the chair of oil industry giant Halliburton. The Washington Post was first to report that Zinke violated an ethics pledge he signed when taking office in January 2017, by continuing to pursue the land deal for seven months while in office.
The Inspector General, who referred the development deal to the Justice Department as a criminal matter, is investigating two additional allegations: Zinke’s use of government planes for personal travel and business, and his decision to block a decision to deny two Native tribes in Connecticut approval for a casino, following lobbying efforts by Nevada corporate casino interests.
Other allegations dogging Zinke include deliberately suppressed climate change data, and an attempt to subvert the department’s internal review process by appointing a political ally to the position of inspector general.
Zinke has denied all of the allegations, although he cited them as the reason for his departure: “I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations,” he stated on Twitter.
Ana Unruh Cohen, the managing director for government affairs for the non-profit National Resource Defense Council, has described Zinke’s tenure at Interior as an ethics nightmare.
“Zinke was wholly unqualified to lead the Department of Interior,” Cohen said. “He lacks the ethics, integrity, and the dedication to the agency’s core mission to act as a steward for America’s public lands, wildlife, and natural resources.”
Zinke’s disregard for environmental protections, tribal rights, and wildlife and conservation protections generated controversy from the start as well as dozens of lawsuits in addition to alleged ethics violations.
As Secretary of the Interior, Zinke was in charge of 500 million acres of public lands, including the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA), and nearly 400 other national parks and monuments.
Zinke was in the SMMNRA with California Governor Jerry Brown a week after the Woolsey Fire burned an estimated 88 percent of the National Park Service’s parkland and nearly half of the entire area of the recreation area.
During the visit, Zinke stated that fires like the Woolsey Fire are unsustainable and that the issue should not be political. During the visit, Zinke pledged that the federal government would commit funds to help the recovery effort, and that he was committed to working with the governor as a team. Less than a month later, he resigned.
Zinke’s departure is not expected to impact the disaster relief funding, but critics say the turmoil and lack of direction for the entire National Park Service under Zinke has done extensive damage to all parks under Interior’s control, not just the fire-ravaged Santa Monica Mountains.
“During his time as Secretary, our national parks faced unprecedented threats and suffered from a clear lack of support,” stated Phil Francis, chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks.
Francis joined her voice to a coalition of conservation groups asking the current administration to do better this time, and appoint someone who has the public’s interest at heart, but they aren’t optimistic.
Next in line is Interior’s deputy secretary David Bernhardt. Like Zinke, he is also a former lobbyist for the oil and gas industry.
It will be up to the public to put pressure on the Senate to approve someone committed to the conservation and environmental goals of the department, not the oil and mining industry.
“If [Zinke’s] successor also puts the interests of polluters ahead of safeguarding public health and the environment. he or she will encounter the same wall of resistance,” Cohen said.