Zinke Flips Westerners the Bird

Interior Secretary set to ignore overwhelming public feedback in scrapping landmark sage-grouse conservation plans

Greater Sage-Grouse | Dan Dzurlsln, Flickr

In less than one year on the job, Interior Secretary Zinke has taken a wrecking ball to America’s public lands legacy. From the unprecedented step of dramatically shrinking national monuments to proposing massive entrance fee hikes for national parks, he has made his doctrine clear — public lands are for extractive industries, not the American people.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (left) looks on as President Trump announces an executive order aimed at drastically shrinking national monuments | DOI Flickr

Zinke has justified his actions by saying he’s merely listening to the public, but a closer look shows the public overwhelmingly supports conserving our public lands for future generations and opposes selling out our lands to oil, gas, and coal companies. For example, more than 2.8 million Americans, along with local businesses and the burgeoning outdoor industry, asked Zinke to leave our national monuments intact. He expressly rejected that input in recommending that President Trump dramatically shrink six national monuments.

Now, after Zinke announced his intent to eviscerate collaborative land management plans that balance sage-grouse conservation with energy development, Westerners are asking him to honor the deal that was struck and leave the plans alone. The feedback has been overwhelming:

  • The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service collectively received nearly 400,000 comments urging them to leave sage-grouse conservation plans intact.
  • At 15 public meetings scattered across the region, sportsmen and women, ranchers, business owners, and conservationists urged the agencies to honor the deal they brokered in 2015.
  • Western governors of both parties, including Matt Mead (R-WY), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Brian Sandoval (R-NV), and Steve Bullock (D-MT), made it clear that major changes to the plans are not needed.
  • A poll just released by Colorado College found that 64 percent of Westerners support keeping the existing plans in place.
  • Editorial boards and opinion writers around the West have asked Zinke to leave the sage-grouse plans alone.

Will Secretary Zinke listen?

Ignoring the overwhelming support for plans could threaten the sage-grouse — a medium-sized bird once common across the West — whose populations have steadily declined, in part due to extensive oil and gas development. Plummeting populations could land the sage-grouse on the endangered species list, which would place restrictions on development. The desire to protect the sage-grouse while maintaining development is what brought a broad set of stakeholders together, eventually leading to the collaborative plans finalized by the Obama administration and supported by a bipartisan set of governors, ranchers, and conservationists.

With so many supporting the compromise sage-grouse plans, who’s asking for them to be scrapped? Groups like the Western Energy Alliance and the Independent Petroleum Producers of America, two oil and gas trade associations that have lobbied for opening vast areas for new drilling, eliminating safeguards to cut methane waste from public lands energy development, and nixing rules that increase the safety of fracked wells. The Western Energy Alliance has gone so far as to sue the Interior Department, seeking to scrap sage-grouse conservation plans altogether.

In the coming months, Secretary Zinke will decide whether to eviscerate the collaborative sage-grouse plans or whether to listen to the broad range of Westerners that want to keep them in place. With such a diverse range of interests asking him to honor the deal struck just a few years ago, this should be an easy decision. Unfortunately, given Secretary Zinke’s track record of favoring energy extraction above all else, keeping a balanced, collaborative approach to conserving the sage-grouse seems anything but a given.