Interior secretary Ryan Zinke’s resignation, announced Saturday, Dec. 15, ended speculation of whether the former Montana congressman and Navy SEAL could stay on and survive ethics investigations that are coming following the change to a Democrat majority in the House of Representatives. The new Congress may convene as early as January 3, 2019, to make the transition official.
The Department of the Interior manages public lands and minerals, national parks and wildlife refuges, and upholds federal trust responsibilities to Indian tribes and Native Alaskans. Additionally, Interior is responsible for endangered species conservation and other environmental conservation efforts.
In his nearly two-year tenure as Interior secretary, Zinke played an instrumental role in the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back Obama-era regulations on oil and gas drilling, mining, and wildlife protections. He will be long remembered for his recommendations to shrink a dozen national monuments, including Bears Ears National Monument, one of President Obama’s final actions before leaving office in January 2017.
The Trump administration, one year ago, slashed the protection of 85 percent of the 1.35 million acres of Bears Ears protected by the Obama executive order. And with the concurrent reduction of Grand Staircase-Escalante to half its former size, the Utah moves constituted the largest rollback of federal land protection in U.S. history.
Native Americans and public lands advocates were outraged; conservatives in Congress and the fossil fuel industry praised the action.
Zinke also opened up nearly all U.S. coastal waters to offshore drilling. In addition, he proposed doubling entrance fees during peak seasons at some of the nation's most popular national parks, including Sequoia and Kings Canyon, to help make up for an $11 billion backlog in needed maintenance.
Zinke’s policy decisions at the Interior Department were overshadowed in recent months by investigations into his business deals, travel expenses, and connections to the captains of the energy industry. The outgoing secretary is currently at the center of more than a dozen federal investigations.
The inquiries include Zinke’s involvement in a Montana real estate deal that would benefit the chairman of Halliburton oilfield services, as well as the Interior’s Department’s decision to deny a Native American tribe’s plans to open a casino.
In May 2017, in one of his first actions as the new Secretary of the Interior, Zinke visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks where he participated in a staged ignition of forest debris that had been cleared mechanically in the Grant Grove area.
Rep. Ron Bishop, who is losing his chairmanship of the House Natural Resources Committee when Democrats take over next month, and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes are reportedly on a short list to replace Zinke.
Reyes, when he heard he was being considered, said he was honored and said: “For western America, there will be few decisions as consequential as choosing the next secretary of the Interior.”