He came in on horseback, but is trying to make a much quieter exit. On Friday, it was announced that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke would be stepping down from his post after months of budding scandals. As secretary, Zinke oversaw efforts to boost oil and gas development on federal lands, while also trying to improve relationships between the federal government and tribes around the country.
And yes, he literally rode to his Washington, DC office on horseback his first day at work. (The horse, named Tonto, belongs to the U.S. Park Police).
Reactions to his resignation show mixed reactions from the environmental movement, which is both glad to see Zinke gone and concerned about the man appointed to take his place.
“Ryan Zinke pledged to lead the Interior Department in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, but unfortunately, he proudly carried the torch for the Trump administration’s campaign of relentless attacks on our public lands, waters, Tribal sovereignty, and the environment,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D, N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, after the announcement.
Zinke’s resignation came as he faced mounting ethics scandals–more than a dozen probes into questions about the use of public funds, mixing official and political business and his involvement in a questionable land deal. And Zinke’s been involved in political fights, too. He fought for the authority to reduce the size of the Bear Ears National Monument in court. Created in the waning days of the Obama administration, the Bear Ears National Monument encompasses 1.35 million acres of land and preserves sites sacred to several native tribes. After taking office, the Trump administration shrunk the monument by 85 percent, a move that continues to work its way through court challenges.
Despite the controversy surrounding the monuments case, many major Native American groups, including the National Congress of American Indians, are keeping quiet about Zinke’s resignation.
This comes even though Zinke has also been criticized for how he ran the department. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has been plagued by sexual harassment scandals for years. During his confirmation hearing two years ago, Zinke pledged a “zero tolerance” policy towards sexual harassment. Bringing that policy to fruition has been more difficult. News broke last week of a DOI employee who had sexually harassed coworkers for years and whose case remains under investigation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, America’s energy producers are sad to see Zinke go. Under his leadership, the Interior Department was much more industry friendly, opening up millions of acres of federal land to mineral leasing.
“Under Zinke’s leadership, the Department was not only a better neighbor and partner to the millions of people who work, depend upon and recreate on Federal lands, but also made great strides in showing when to reach across the fence lines between public and private interests to move energy and conservation policies forward, and just as importantly, when not to mandate to states and individuals,” said Randall Luthi, President of the National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA).
However, green groups may have traded one energy-industry-friendly secretary for another. In the interim, Zinke is being replaced by Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. Bernhardt was chief attorney at the Interior Department under President George Bush, before working as a lobbyist for the fossil fuels and water industry.
The National Resources Defense Council is already fretting that Bernhardt’s industry background raises ethical concerns, saying that it less a question of “who he has helped” and more one of “who he hasn’t helped.” Its environmental ally Greenpeace agrees.
“It would be easier to say good riddance to Ryan Zinke if David Bernhardt, his potential replacement waiting in the wings, didn’t appear to be even more committed to doling out government favors to his former oil and gas industry lobbying clients,” said Greenpeace USA Climate Director Janet Redman.
Greenpeace is already calling on Democrats in the House to begin investigating ethics violations in the department and to “[make] sure that Bernhardt doesn’t continue the Trump administration policy of selling off our federal lands and waters to the highest bidder.”
Zinke is expected to serve through the end of the year.