Helena, Montana

Special Report: Zinke’s record as U.S. Interior secretary: Fossil-fuel emphasis, public access, helping ag

HELENA – From farmers to environmentalists to oil-and-gas producers, there’s no shortage of opinions on the first-year report card for Montana’s first member of a presidential cabinet, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

“I think they’re pretty much putting forward that `energy dominance’ agenda that they were very upfront about at the beginning,” says Kathleen Sgamma, executive director of the Western Energy Alliance, an oil-and-gas trade group. “If we develop it here in the West, rather than elsewhere in the country or overseas, we are creating those jobs here.”

Oil-and-gas producers are among Interior’s biggest fans right now, cheering the pullback on Obama-era regulatory moves they saw as unnecessary and roadblocks to efficient development on federal land.

Many conservationists, however, see the pendulum swinging too far, and say fossil-fuel developers are getting just what they want, at the expense of other uses on the 400 million acres of public lands overseen by the agency.

“We knew from the moment he was nominated that it was going to be a disaster for our public resources,” says Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center, one of the state’s leading environmental groups. “Zinke has not gone to bat for our public resources.”

Just over a year into Zinke’s tenure, MTN News interviewed more than a half-dozen sources involved in land-use issues and examined records and news accounts of the former Montana congressman’s actions at Interior.

What emerges is a picture of an agency that certainly has helped fossil-fuel developers, by easing regulations and opening up more lands to exploration – but that hasn’t necessarily ignored other energy sources, either.

Zinke also gets compliments for increasing access to federal lands and making the agency friendlier to agriculture, which accesses federally funded water projects for irrigation and other uses.

“There’s a whole lot more feeling that ag is a priority, the things that we do are a priority,” says Joe Dooling, a Republican Party activist and farmer-rancher northeast of Helena. “This administration has been what ag has needed, especially in times when you’re seeing a 60 percent reduction in ag income in the last three years.”

Zinke, who visited Montana earlier this week, told MTN News that the Trump administration considers energy development a big economic driver and wants to make sure America avoids foreign entanglements over oil and gas.

“The president is absolutely correct, to make sure that we’re never held hostage, to bring the economy forward,” he said.

He also told a meeting of conservation groups last week in Washington, D.C., and a meeting of ranchers and local officials in Glasgow on Sunday that it’s time for a “grand pivot” at Interior – to a greater emphasis on conservation, infrastructure and reorganization of the agency.

“I think the energy sector is fine,” he said in Glasgow.

Yet three days later, Zinke was the keynote speaker at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck, N.D., where he told oil-and-gas industry representatives that Interior wants to be a “better partner” with the industry.

Under Zinke, Interior has taken many steps to assist fossil-fuel developers on federal lands overseen by the department.

He has pulled back and ordered reviews of Bureau of Land Management regulations on hydraulic fracturing and methane-gas capture; he lifted a moratorium on coal leasing; he stopped a review of mineral royalties that some said are too low on federal lands and should be increased.

Interior also has reopened a review of sage grouse protection plans in Western states, that have restricted oil-and-gas development; opened vast offshore areas to oil-and-gas drilling; and reduced the size of two national monuments in Utah, allowing possible coal, oil and gas development there.

He also reassigned 27 senior-level Interior executives last summer – including some who said the move targeted officials who had worked on climate change or other issues related to fossil-fuel regulation.

Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift told MTN News that senior executives are the highest-paid employees in the federal government and know they could be reassigned at any time.

“Congress meant for the Senior Executive Service to be a mobile force that are capable of taking on different assignments to meet the needs of the agency,” she said. “Personnel moves among the SES are conducted to better-serve the taxpayer and the department’s operations.”

Land Tawney, executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, an outdoor-recreation group that’s headquartered in Missoula but has chapters in 33 states, says his group supported Zinke as Interior secretary when he was appointed by Trump last year.

He says the group liked Zinke’s record of opposing the sale of federal lands and supporting the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which finances outdoor projects across the country.

But now, Tawney says the group is “disappointed” by what it sees as an over-emphasis on fossil fuel development, including the downsizing of the Utah monuments, redoing the sage-grouse plan and attempts to scale back Interior’s budget.

“I thought there’d be much more balance going into the conversation, and, really, it’s `energy domination’ that’s ruling the day,” he says.

Sgamma, whose group represents 300 oil-and-gas firms in the West, says the moves by Interior are simply attempts to remove “red tape” that needlessly delays responsible development on federal lands.

“It had gotten to a point where there was so much red tape, you have a 10-year lease on federal land and you’re lucky if they let you start developing by year 10,” she told MTN News. “The process shouldn’t be about just blocking development. It should be protective of the environment, but should still enable those jobs to be created.”

Swift also disputes that Interior, under Zinke, is favoring one type of energy over another.

She notes that BLM is advancing a 500-megawatt solar project in southern California and has included renewable-energy representatives on the feds’ Royalty Policy Committee for the first time.

While Tawney is critical of Zinke’s conservation efforts, he says the secretary has taken good steps to create more public access to federal lands, particularly national wildlife refuges.

Mark Lambrecht, director of government affairs for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, says Zinke’s first order as secretary prioritized access on federal lands for hunting, fishing and recreational shooting. Another one said the department must work with other federal agencies to enhance wildlife corridors, he says.

Lambrecht also complimented Interior for moving to “delist” the grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone area and the gray wolf in the Great Lakes states, to allow the states more leeway to manage these protected animals as game animals.

Dooling, the farmer-rancher from Helena, also says agricultural interests are happy to see Interior manage its water resources in the Bureau of Reclamation with irrigators more in mind.

“I think it’s the first time that they’re not pitting one (side) against the other, but looking for solutions that say, alright, give a little bit here, give a little bit there, and see if we can come up with a compromise that works for everybody in terms of protecting the fish and in terms of protecting the traditions of agriculture,” he says.

Zinke says now it’s time for Interior to focus on infrastructure, such as the backlog of maintenance at national parks, and a vast, proposed reorganization that could realign the agency’s work according to ecosystem and regions, rather than along bureaucratic sections.

Interior is visiting with “stakeholders” about the reorganization plan and should have it ready soon, Swift says.

“How do we reorganize to be better stewards in the next century?” Zinke told MTN News this week. “How do we make sure our wildlife systems connect? … Making sure our trail systems make sense? That’s all part of looking at the stewardship part at Interior.”

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