Secretary Zinke’s Four Lies and a Truth

Testimony before Congress highlights his strained relationship with facts

U.S. Public Land | BLM Flickr

Throughout his year in office, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has made a habit of repeating false statements to justify eliminating public land protections and increasing oil and gas development. His troubled relationship with the truth was on full display this week as he testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee in support of the Trump administration’s proposed FY2019 Interior Department budget.

Below are just some of the latest whoppers from the secretary.

Lie 1: Bears Ears decision “restored” 400,000 acres back to wilderness

As Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke is responsible for managing public lands of all types — from national parks to wilderness areas to BLM lands. Questions from New Mexico Senator Tom Udall reveal that Secretary Zinke does not fully understand how land designations work. Remarkably, the secretary suggested that by eliminating nearly1.2 million acres of Bears Ears National Monument, he was “restoring” previously designated wilderness areas.

Bears Ears Buttes | BLM Flickr

“In Bears Ears, after the revised boundary, after I restored 400,000 acres of wilderness back to wilderness, and you and I both love wilderness.”

That’s just not how it works, and an Interior Secretary should know that.

Wilderness Areas and Wilderness Study Areas are simply tracts of land that have been identified for their wild, undeveloped characteristics and are managed under a different set of priorities and rules. They can fall within other types of public land. For example, wilderness areas lie within Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada, and the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming.

Eliminating a national park, monument, or forest would do nothing to “restore” wilderness. You just end up with the same wilderness area no longer surrounded by a park, monument, or forest.

Lie 2: Oil, gas, uranium didn’t play into Bears Ears decision

In response to another question from New Mexico Senator Tom Udall regarding the role potential energy development played in the decision to erase vast swaths of Bears Ears National Monument, Secretary Zinke replied in unequivocal terms:

White Mesa Uranium Mill near Bears Ears National Monument | Ecoflight

“Well, let me make it clear on Bears Ears. There are little, if any, oil and gas resources within the boundaries of Bears Ears. Oil and gas leasing activity was never part of the discussion.

We’ve heard it all before. The secretary has repeatedly claimed that the decision to drastically reduce the size of Bears Ears National Monument was “not about energy,” yet internal agency documents acquired by the New York Times indicate that oil and gas development was “central” to the department’s review process. The documents were only released after the New York Times and Yale University Law School sued the Interior Department for failing to respond to open records requests.

Further research by the New York Times indicates that the national monument contained more than 300 mining claims. According to the Washington Post, Energy Fuels Resources — a uranium company with significant holdings in the area — launched an intense lobbying effort during the monument review process. Their calls to trim out the uranium deposits located within Bears Ears were well received. In an interview following the Trump administration’s decision, Utah Governor Gary Herbert noted, “The uranium deposits are outside the monument now.”

Even more definitively, court documents filed by monument opponents in San Juan County, Utah claim, “The area in and around Bears Ears is rich in oil, gas, coal, and uranium deposits.”

Lie 3: We can’t fund the Land & Water Conservation Fund because of park maintenance

Secretary Zinke explained to Montana Senator Steve Daines that he’s “long been a supporter of the LWCF program. As a Congressman, former congressman, I’ve seen the benefits of the LWCF program…It’s hard to justify taking in more land when we haven’t addressed the maintenance problem of our current holdings.”

On this point, Secretary Zinke is putting talk above action. He says he’s a long-time supporter of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. But, if a proposed budget is a statement of an administration’s values, then on LWCF Secretary Zinke has lost his way by proposing to gut the program by nearly zeroing out its funding.

LWCF is one of the most critical sources of funding for public lands conservation. The program takes revenues from offshore oil and gas drilling and re-invests in parks and public lands, opening up access for hunting and fishing, providing funds to build new ballparks and swimming pools, and ensuring that America’s prized parks aren’t lost to trophy home development.

Unfortunately, Secretary Zinke has fallen into a trap set by anti-park members of Congress who want the American public to believe we can’t protect America’s public lands AND guarantee there’s money available to maintain our national parks.

Luckily, a bipartisan majority in Congress does’t subscribe to Secretary Zinke’s view. Congressional leaders have invested in LWCF during 2018 — despite the Trump administration’s proposal to cut funding — and leaders continue to express their deep commitment for ensuring LWCF is continued and funded long into the future.

Lie 4: Maintenance proposal is the largest investment in public lands in American history

Twice during his testimony, Secretary Zinke claimed that the proposed budget would include the “largest investment in the history of this country to public lands.” This is not the first time the secretary has made this claim, which fact checkers have already graded as “False.”

Grand Canyon National Park

Earlier this year he told the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee the same false statement. Secretary Zinke said that the budget will provide up to $18 billion to fund maintenance projects. According to Politifact, Franklin Roosevelt’s $3 billion investment in 1933 for the Civilian Conservation Corps would amount to $53 billion in today’s dollars and, at the time, accounted for a larger portion of federal spending. Not only is Secretary Zinke’s proposal a fraction of Roosevelt’s investment, it is not a guaranteed $18 billion. His proposal relies on an increase in federal royalty funds from oil and gas development, which is only possible if more drilling occurs on public lands and waters or if oil prices jump significantly.

Truth: Communities play an important role in oil and gas leasing decisions

The Interior Secretary did make at least one absolutely, unequivocally accurate statement during his testimony. When asked about the administration’s ongoing efforts to cut out the public from public lands decision, the secretary responded:

BLM Flickr

“I think the public does have a say and a voice. It’s their land after all. Public land deserves public review.”

Unfortunately, the Interior Department under Secretary Zinke’s leadership has gone to extreme lengths to cut out the public from decision making. The agency has placed significant limits on public review and input for oil drilling projects, which can negatively impact communities across the West. And, even when the public has been given the chance to provide input, Zinke’s agency has often opted to ignore the American public.

When the Interior Department asked Americans about national monuments, including Bears Ears, an overwhelming majority (98 percent of the 2.8 million comments) asked Secretary Zinke to maintain monuments. President Trump, at the secretary’s urging, ignored the overwhelming public support for protecting Bears Ears and opted to eliminate Bears Ears National Monument and erase protections for millions of acres of U.S. public lands.

Sign up for Look West to get daily public lands and energy news sent to your inbox, or subscribe to Go West, Young Podcast.