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The DOI Has Gone Astray—and I Witnessed It Firsthand

The former director of the Department of the Interior's policy office opens up about where the agency went wrong—and how to save it.
A man holds a sign on May 10th, 2017, protesting the shrinking of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.

A man holds a sign on May 10th, 2017, protesting the shrinking of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Guardian.

Back in 2017, the staff at the Department of the Interior was not hoping for the best, we were hoping for the competent. A presidential transition can bring dramatic change to the leadership of a federal agency—particularly the agency that manages the conservation and use of one-fifth of America's land area and the seabed of our continental shelf.

Civil servants pledge to continue to serve the American people and the agency mission regardless of whether or not they agree with the political positioning of the president and his cabinet. So we watched the Ryan Zinke confirmation hearings carefully, listening for hints at his management style, his communications style, and his general understanding and respect for public lands and the mission of the agency. These were the qualities that mattered, not his ideology. We were hoping for competence.

What we heard in his hearing was a general respect for the notion of public lands, of science, and of the career staff who make the agency tick. There were some red flags for public land advocates and positive signs for industry, but for civil servants, he seemed competent and respectful enough. As so often happens in politics, however, looks can be deceiving.

If Zinke deserves credit for one thing during his short tenure as secretary, it's for his acting skills, and he was, in effect, handed a brand new "script" when he took office as secretary of the interior. This script was written by his oil, gas, and mining associates and their mouthpiece organizations. It was a script for a provocative new tragedy in three acts, and his job was to do as the script says.

Act I: Erase the Past

The Trump administration has tried to reverse everything that the Obama administration did, good or bad. Zinke dutifully has done his part by putting a stop to rules meant to protect health and safety, such as a methane venting and flaring rule that would have improved American health and provided energy to thousands of homes. His most visible action has been to implement the largest reduction of protected lands in American history by shrinking the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, in the process giving the middle finger to millions of Americans who commented in support of the monuments, as well as the many American Indian Tribes who had supported Bears Ears.

Act II: Exile the Experts

His new script has also required Zinke to deny the role of science in policy-making and ensure that experts could not interfere with the oil, gas, and mining agenda. He eliminated the term climate change from the agency strategic plan, required that all research grants be reviewed by an old football buddy, and canceled a National Academy study into the health impacts of coal mining just as he was canceling a moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands. He also took the unprecedented step of reassigning dozens of career senior executives, including me, as a means to "trim the workforce," as he stated in a congressional budget hearing. He has dutifully and actively worked to hollow out the agency to make it easier for his industry sponsors to operate on public lands.

Act III: Choose Your Rules

In many tragedies, the flaws of the lead character bring his or her demise, and Zinke's script appears like it will be no different. The Trump administration has a history of hiring less-than-upright characters and Zinke has not disappointed. The subject of over a dozen inspector general investigations, he apparently did not pay attention during the ethics briefing that every new federal employee must attend. Evidence suggests that he has used his public office, and taxpayer dollars, for private gain on multiple occasions, and these scandals seem to have finally caught up to him.

If he leaves—which, reports suggest, could be very soon—Zinke will be replaced by another actor but the script won't change. Waiting in the wings to take over is Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil, gas, and mining lobbyist who worked at the Department of the Interior during the George W. Bush administration and knows his way around the agency. Bernhardt embodies the revolving door between industry and Interior, and has already raised eyebrows over likely conflicts of interest. He may prove to be more effective at doing the job that Zinke started, but will have to face a greater degree of oversight due to recent election results.

The real loser in this brief performance has been the American taxpayer. America's National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, and other public lands are national treasures and must be managed with care to serve our national interest. This means using science to guide decision-making rather than ignoring climate change and marginalizing scientists. It means striking a balance between exploitation and conservation rather than providing massive handouts to oil, gas and mining interests. This means supporting and nurturing a federal workforce to effectively execute the laws, regulations, and policies required by Congress rather than hollowing out the operations of the agency you're tasked with managing.

Ryan Zinke has never looked up from his script long enough.

Americans, and the civil servants who work at the Department of the Interior, deserve a secretary who respects ethics, transparency, science, and the mission of the agency rather than an actor reading from an industry-prepared script. When the time comes, the Senate must hold Zinke's successor to a higher standard.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Guardian.