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Even Driven Out of D.C., Zinke’s Terrible Policies are Undermining Our Public Lands

It makes sense that Ryan Zinke isn’t coming back to Montana. His brief, scandal-plagued tenure as Secretary of the Interior is perhaps best remembered by his self-aggrandizing personal flag and his dozen or so ethics violations, but his real legacy could be much worse: the wholesale loss of public lands across the West.

One of the policies Zinke championed in his time at Interior was moving a great deal of its operations out West. While Zinke sold it as an effort to get the agency closer to the areas it manages, critics noted from the outset that its real purpose was to get rid of people who had devoted their lives to government service and lands management. It turns out it’s a lot easier to get oil and gas leases approved when you replace the professionals overseeing them with industry hacks, after all.

A report today indicates the damage could be much worse. Two former Bureau of Land Management directors argue that the move is just cover for a plan to turn over millions of acres to the states:

Two former Bureau of Land Management directors say plans to move the agency’s headquarters to Colorado are an early step toward abolishing the entire agency and transferring millions of acres of federal land to the states.

“I think the endgame is to try to make it almost impossible to manage these public lands,” said former BLM Director Robert V. Abbey, who served in the Obama administration from 2009-2012. “It’s just another step that they are taking that will add credence to those advocates that say these lands should be managed by the states.”

Zinke and his equally compromised replacement Secretary David Bernhardt have already attempted to transform Interior and its agencies into the home of fast-tracking oil and gas exploration, but the planned move of BLM will speed the process of making BLM an irrelevant agency, fueling calls for land transfer:

Patrick Shea, who served as BLM director for part of the Clinton administration and is now a Salt Lake City lawyer, said the bureau is meant to serve all U.S. citizens, not just those from Western states. He said it was essential for the BLM director to be in Washington in order to engage with Congress and other Interior agencies, and to advocate for the budget.

“They want to dissolve gradually the federal BLM agency and transfer the responsibility and, more importantly, the assets to states, which robs the rest of the country of an asset they’ve been paying for,” said Shea about the move.

This is a pattern we’re seeing from Republicans across the nation: by hobbling and under-funding government institutions, they give energy to those who argue for more privatization. And there is simply no way transfer of federal lands to the states ends any other way than with massive privatization.

It’s easy to dismiss Ryan Zinke’s tenure at Interior as perhaps one of the best examples of someone rising to the level of his venal, arrogant incompetence, but it’s important that not lose sight of the fact that Zinke put this plan to privatize our public lands in motion.

If he ever visits Montana again, we should let him know just how we feel about that.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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