Cowboys, Badlands and the Meaning of Conservation – An Inside Energy Podcast Special


If Ryan Zinke is modeling himself after the Conservationist President, Teddy Roosevelt, then why is he making headlines for rolling back land protections? There's more of an answer there than you might think.

NOTE: This piece originally aired as an episode of the podcast Trump on Earth.

Late last month, President Trump told Utah lawmakers that the Bear’s Ears National Monument – designated in the waning days of the Obama administration – would be downsized.

That message is in line with recommendations from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.  Like Trump, Zinke favors boosting production of oil and gas resources on federal lands to create jobs and enhance the nation’s energy security.  At the same time, Zinke touts himself not only as an avid outdoorsman, but a follower of the conservation ideals of the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt.

“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 and 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 line 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.

“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,” said Michael Doyle, a reporter for E&E News in Washington, D.C.

This is an ideological struggle over public lands that goes back at least to Roosevelt. The country’s different land designations 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.

On the other end of the spectrum are lands that are managed for preservation — like national parks — with 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. At the same time, he’s been jetting around the country, visiting parks to increase their exposure.

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 Antiquities Act, creating national monuments, was signed by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906.

“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: a civil war hospital in Kentucky called Camp Nelson, the Mississippi home of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, and a sacred Native American site called the Badger Two-Medicine Area in Zinke’s home state of Montana.

The White House said the President will travel to Utah to make a formal announcement on the Bears Ears decision in December.

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