The Teddy Roosevelt Legacy At Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department


Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke often speaks about wanting to manage the Interior Department in the Theodore Roosevelt tradition.

The Department of the Interior is outlining steps aimed at increasing energy production on federal lands. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says boosting production of resources like oil and gas creates jobs and enhances the nation’s energy security.

It’s another pro-industry headline for a secretary touting himself as not only an avid outdoorsman, but a follower of the conservation ideals of the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. If the manager of most of our federal lands is going find inspiration from someone, it would be hard to find a more appropriate muse.

“Roosevelt is generally regarded as the father of the modern conservation movement,” said Whit Fosburgh, President and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “When he was President, he set aside somewhere around like 230 million acres of public lands for the future of people forever.”

That land area is larger than the states of Texas and Wyoming combined. It includes 150 National Forests, five National Parks, 51 federal bird reserves (which went on to become wildlife refuges), four National Game Preserves and 18 National Monuments.

Zinke often pays his respects to that legacy, while still pushing the pro-industry agenda of the Trump Administration.

“Our public lands are unique on this globe. We want to make sure we protect them, cultivate them, but you can use them wisely,” Zinke said earlier this year at an event called “Unleashing American Energy.”

Reporter Michael Doyle covers the Interior Department for E&E News in Washington, DC.

“That’s part of his agenda, very explicitly part of his agenda to open up the public lands to greater use under the theory that they belong to the public for multiple-use.” 

This is an ideological struggle over public lands that goes back at least to Roosevelt. The country’s different land designations all have different rules, creating a conservation spectrum.

On one end, you have multiple use lands — like National Forests — that allow timber harvests or energy development, with the understanding those lands will eventually be left in good condition.

On the other end of the spectrum would be lands managed for preservation — like National Parks — the goal being to keep those places as close to their natural state as possible.

Roosevelt believed in that entire spectrum and designated lands accordingly. In that way, Doyle said Zinke does take after Roosevelt.

“Secretary Zinke, he has complicated nuanced views, even if at the same time industry is probably going to win more battles in his department than it loses,” he said.

Zinke’s department recently unveiled a controversial plan to double some entrance fees to help shore up a major budget shortfall for the National Parks. Also, he’s been jetting around the country visiting parks to increase their exposure.

The controversial new Bears Ears National Monument is one of four monuments Sec. Zinke recommends reducing in size.

Still, perhaps the most criticized move of the new Secretary’s tenure has been his recommendation to shrink the size of at least four National Monuments. The law creating National Monuments was signed by none other than Theodore Roosevelt.

“It’s terribly ironic that we have somebody who likes to call up the name and compare himself to Teddy Roosevelt,” said the Sierra Club’s Dan Ritzman, “but, the major thing that he has done in his nine months as Secretary of the Interior is try to undo this act that was signed by Roosevelt and to strip protections away from places that were protected using this act.”

Zinke argues the original law says monuments should set aside the smallest amount of land possible to protect sites of national interest. He said the monuments he recommends shrinking do not follow the spirit of that law.  

However, in his recommendations to President Trump, Zinke also suggests establishing three new National Monuments.

No final decision has been made.

Editor’s Note:  On Friday, October 27, President Trump reportedly told Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah that he would approve Secretary Zinke’s recommendation to shrink two national monuments in Utah: Bear’s Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.  The official announcement has not yet been made. 

What’s Next?

  • A longer version of this story will be featured in an upcoming episode of the podcast “Trump on Earth.”
  • See the leaked memo outlining Sec. Zinke’s National Monument recommendations to President Trump.
  • Inside Energy produced an hour long documentary that covered Bears Ears, among other subjects.  Check it out here.