Secretary Zinke: More Access, Little Conservation

Secretary Zinke rode a horse to work in March 2017 when assuming command of the U.S. Interior Department, causing a mild stir in the nation’s capital. One year later, Secretary Zinke’s harshest critics imply he should have driven to work in a 40-ton seismic vibration truck to symbolize the Trump administration’s efforts to expand oil, gas and metal extraction on the public’s federal lands.

Those less harsh say it’s too soon to keelhaul Zinke. They still hope he can live up to the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, the president whose conservation ideals Zinke often invokes. They note that when Secretary Zinke took office, he instantly ended long-brewing efforts within the Republican party to transfer federal lands to state ownership. Zinke, a lifelong hunter, staunchly opposes selling or shedding public lands.

With that issue silenced, hunters, anglers, hikers and other outdoor recreationists in 2018 are focusing on the next steps: How best do we care for our public lands? Who and what defines access to these lands? Will our government pay for the lands’ long-term care?

And besides asking himself, “What would Teddy Roosevelt do?” when mulling access to remote public lands, perhaps Secretary Zinke should ask: “Would TR drive a Winnebago or pedal a fat-tire bike?”

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Conservation groups hope the Interior Department keeps acquiring private lands that land-lock public properties, opening access to those secluded areas.

Much has changed the past 100 years, after all. Secretary Zinke oversees about 500 million acres of public lands, which cover roughly one-fifth of the nation. He’s also responsible for managing the nation’s fish, wildlife, minerals and endangered species through the National Park Service; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; U.S. Geological Survey; Bureau of Reclamation; Bureau of Land Management; Bureau of Indian Affairs; Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement; and the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement.

Hunting groups are uneasy after Zinke’s first year as Interior secretary, fearing he’s more likely to exploit wild places than protect them. Whit Fosburgh, president/CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, supported Zinke’s appointment as Interior secretary, saying in December 2016:

“Secretary Zinke is someone we can work with. He’s shown the courage to buck his own party on the issue of selling or transferring public lands that provide 72 percent of Western sportsmen access to great hunting and fishing. … We won’t agree with him on everything, but we think he will listen and has the right instincts.”

When contacted in late January, Fosburgh gave Zinke a split grade: an ‘A’ on access and a D-minus’ on conservation. “We want the public to be out on these lands, but Americans deserve quality lands that offer quality experiences,” Fosburgh said. “That requires good science-based conservation programs.”

Fosburgh credited Zinke for immediately ordering the Park Service, BLM and F&WS to identify ways to expand recreational access to public lands. And in August, the Interior Department acquired 4,176 acres of private land along the 16,000-acre Sabinoso Wilderness Area in New Mexico, which had been landlocked by private ranches. That deal opened the Sabinoso to everyone. It’s no longer the exclusive playground of surrounding landowners.

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The Backcountry Hunters and Anglers group worries that the Trump administration is trying to open too many wild areas to oil and mineral extractions.

Fosburgh also credits Secretary Zinke for a November 2017 decision to open an additional 132,000 acres to hunters and anglers in 10 national wildlife refuges. Fosburgh said the challenge now is to keep the nation’s public lands accessible. Budget cuts the past 30-plus years have neglected and abandoned roads and trails, causing locals to think federal agencies can’t manage what’s entrusted to them.

“If this administration truly believes in public access, it must make sure there’s federal money to support these projects,” Fosburgh said. In part, that means reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Congress established in 1964 to provide recreation opportunities, and safeguard natural areas and waters. The program uses no taxpayer dollars. Rather, it invests earnings from offshore oil and gas leasing. But Congress must reauthorize it by the end of this fiscal year.

Land Tawney, president/CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, also supported Zinke’s nomination. “Mr. Zinke (is) a potential ally of sportsmen and other outdoor recreationists,” Tawney said in December 2016. “We’re gratified the Trump administration is listening to our concerns, and showing a willingness to act in the best interests of the American people and our irreplaceable public-lands legacy.”

Fourteen months later, Tawney isn’t so optimistic. “We should all be very concerned,” he said when contacted in late January. “He’s done some positive things on access, but not enough to even come close to the assaults he’s allowing on public lands, waters and natural resources.”

Tawney said BHA is glad the Trump administration restored restrictions to prevent mining in Bristol Bay, Alaska. He said it’s clear that Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator, responded to overwhelming public opposition. “That was a step in the right direction, which is in contrast to Zinke acknowledging a million comments to keep our national monuments intact, but then rolling back protections on 2 million acres – the largest in history – at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, under the veil of public access,” Tawney said. “Hunters already had access to those places, but now all those acres are more accessible for extractions.”

Tawney also worries about efforts to open new copper mines near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He thinks talk of “energy domination” instead of “energy independence” could create more “Jonah Fields.”

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Hunting groups worry that the federal government’s push for increased copper mining could jeopardize public lands like Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near Ely.

Jonah Field is a large natural-gas field in western Wyoming with nearly 500 wells. Roughly 14 percent of a 45-square mile area has been bulldozed for roads, well pads, pipelines and buildings. Those operations cut the area’s mule deer herd by 60 percent, and disrupt migration routes for pronghorn antelope.

Tawney and Fosburgh also criticized Zinke’s tabling of a multistate sage-grouse management plan that required over a decade of collaborative, multistate efforts to keep these birds off the endangered species list. “That’s really a shot against the collaborative, scientific process,” Tawney said.

Fosburgh shares those concerns. “So far this administration has done nothing positive for conservation,” he said. “It’s all about energy dominance and development. There has not been a single conservation initiative. That’s frustrating. Maybe this will be the year they roll out positive conservation ideas.”

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