Turmoil shakes up agency in charge of vast US lands

Critics say Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has elevated corporate interests above treasured sites.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks on the Trump Administration’s energy policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on Sept. 29. A year of upheaval at the U.S. Interior Department has seen dozens of senior staff members reassigned and key leadership positions left unfilled, rules considered burdensome to industry shelved, and repeated complaints that dissenting views have been sidelined. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks on the Trump Administration’s energy policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on Sept. 29. A year of upheaval at the U.S. Interior Department has seen dozens of senior staff members reassigned and key leadership positions left unfilled, rules considered burdensome to industry shelved, and repeated complaints that dissenting views have been sidelined. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

By Matthew Brown / Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. — A year of upheaval at the U.S. Interior Department has seen dozens of senior staff members reassigned and key leadership positions left unfilled, rules considered burdensome to industry shelved, and a sweeping reorganization proposed for its 70,000 employees.

The evolving status quo at the agency responsible for more than 780,000 square miles of public lands, mostly in the American West, has led to praise from energy and mining companies and Republicans, who welcomed the departure from perceived heavy-handed regulation under President Barack Obama.

But the changes have drawn increasingly sharp criticism from conservationists, Democrats and some agency employees. Under President Donald Trump, the critics say, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has curbed outside input into how the land is used and elevated corporate interests above the duty to safeguard treasured sites.

The differing views illustrate longstanding tensions over the role of America’s public lands — an amalgam of pristine wilderness, recreational playgrounds and abundant energy reserves.

A year into his tenure, Zinke, a former U.S. Navy SEAL and Montana congressman, has emerged as the point person for the administration’s goal of American “energy dominance.” He’s targeted regulations perceived to hamper development of oil, natural gas and coal beneath public lands primarily in the West and Alaska.

He’s also made plans to realign the agency’s bureaucracy, trimming the equivalent of 4,600 jobs — about 7 percent of its workforce — and proposed a massive overhaul that would move decision-making out of Washington, D.C., relocating headquarters staff to Western states at a cost of $17.5 million.

The intent is to delegate more power to personnel in the field who oversee activities ranging from mining to livestock grazing to protecting endangered plants and animals.

Staffing reductions would be achieved through natural attrition and reclassifying some positions to lower pay grades as employees are moved outside the D.C. area, Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift said Monday.

Zinke’s actions have stirred dissent within and outside the agency — from his claim that one-third of Interior employees were disloyal to Trump to a proposal to allow more drilling off America’s coasts while carving out an exception for Florida at the request of Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

Along with Zinke’s full-throated promotion of the Trump administration’s new agenda came the transfer of at least 35 senior Interior employees.

At the agency’s highest levels, 11 leadership positions are vacant a year after Trump took office, including the directors of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.

Panels such as the National Park System Advisory Board have languished, according to a letter submitted by board members who resigned last month. Board Chairman and former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, complained that requests to engage with Zinke’s team were ignored and members were concerned stewardship and protection of the parks was being pushed aside.

When the Park Service in October proposed increasing entrance fees at 17 of the most highly visited parks — from Grand Canyon to Yellowstone and Zion — the board wasn’t consulted, said Carolyn Finney, a University of Kentucky geography professor who was among those who resigned.

The board’s charter expired in December after it collected comments from more than 100 experts on how parks should deal with climate change, increase visitor diversity and protect wildlife.

Zinke’s associate deputy secretary, Todd Willens, called the resignations a “political stunt” because another meeting was planned and because the agency was working to renew the board’s charter.

Similar action has been promised for idled advisory boards at the Bureau of Land Management. Under Trump, the charters for 22 state-level resource advisory councils — composed of local officials, representatives of business and environmental groups and others — expired in January.

Oil and gas groups in particular have embraced the concept of change for an agency once seen as an obstacle to drilling. The withdrawal or cancellation of Obama-era rules on fracking and methane emissions from oil and gas exploration were positive first steps, they say.

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the House Natural Resources Committee’s ranking Democrat, said Zinke’s actions have made it easier to pollute federal lands and waters while giving special interest groups more influence.

“He’s in over his head,” Grijalva said.

Talk to us

More in Northwest

State Sens, Ron Muzzall, R-Whidbey Island, left, Simon Sefzik, R-Ferndale, center left, Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, center right, and Chris Gildon, R-Puyallup, right, confer on the floor of the Senate during a recess, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
House passes pause to state’s long-term care program and tax

The measure would delay the tax until July 2023, and would refund any premiums collected before then.

In this photo taken May 17, 2017, wine barrels are shown at a vineyard adjacent to the Walla Walla Vintners winery in Walla Walla, Wash. The remote southeastern Washington town of Walla Walla - which used to be best known for sweet onions and as home of the state penitentiary - has now reinvented itself into a center of premium wines and wine tourism. (AP Photo/Nicholas K. Geranios)
More sustainable Washington wines are on the way

Labels will indicate grape growers met guidelines in 9 areas, including water, pest and labor practices.

FILE - Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson talks to reporters, Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, during a news conference in Seattle. In a 5-4 decision Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, the Washington Supreme Court upheld an $18 million campaign finance penalty against the Consumer Brands Association, formerly known as the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Ferguson sued the group in 2013, alleging that it spent $11 million to oppose a ballot initiative without registering as a political committee or disclosing the source of the money. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Washington justices uphold $18M fine in GMO-labeling case

Big grocers funneled dark money into a campaign against genetically modified labels on food packaging.

Section of a tsunami high ground map. (Island County)
Tsunami warning fizzled, but future threat to Whidbey is real

State and county officials have long warned about the possibility of a tsunami striking the island.

A sign bearing the corporate logo hangs in the window of a Starbucks open only to take-away customers in this photograph taken Monday, April 26, 2021, in southeast Denver.  Starbucks is no longer requiring its U.S. workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, reversing a policy it announced earlier this month. The Seattle coffee giant says, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022,  it's responding to last week’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.  (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Starbucks nixes vaccine mandate after Supreme Court ruling

The move reverses a policy the coffee company announced earlier this month.

Marianne Edain and Steve Erickson of WEAN at their South Whidbey home in 2019. (Laura Guido / South Whidbey Record, file)
Whidbey environment group isn’t suing county for first time in 25 years

The impact WEAN founders have had on environmental policy in Island County is extensive.

Lawsuit: Washington’s new majority Latino district is a ‘facade’

The legal action targets state Legislative District 15 in Yakima.

FILE - Trees scorched by the Caldor Fire smolder in the Eldorado National Forest, Calif., Friday, Sept. 3, 2021. The Biden administration wants to thin more forests and use prescribed burns to reduce catastrophic wildfires as climate changes makes blazes more intense. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
US plans $50B wildfire fight where forests meet suburbia

Blazes have wiped out communities in California, Colorado, Arizona, Oregon and Washington state.

Skiers make their way uphill under idle lift chairs at the Summit at Snoqualmie Ski Area as fresh snow falls, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, in Snoqualmie Pass, Wash. Several inches of snow fell Wednesday, and the area shown was scheduled to open to skiers and begin lift operation later in the day. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Snoqualmie ski resort cuts some operations after losing power

For Monday skiing, the resort’s website said they have “less than a partial supply of energy.”

Most Read