Nine Questions for Ryan Zinke, Donald Trump’s Pick to Lead the Interior Department

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Nine Questions for Ryan Zinke, Donald Trump’s Pick to Lead the Interior Department

Avalanche Lake, Glacier National Park, near Whitefish, Montana where Ryan Zinke was raised. (Photo: NPS.gov/Public domain)

Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke will begin Senate confirmation hearings today for the post of Secretary of Interior in Donald Trump’s cabinet. As Secretary, he would oversee America’s 500 million acres of public lands, including the National Park System. Zinke would also have responsibility for timber extraction, livestock grazing, coal mining and oil and gas leases on public lands and 1.7 billion acres of seabed on the outer continental shelf. He has called himself a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican” but has voted against air and water protections and voted to weaken the Endangered Species Act and the Antiquities Act. He has questioned climate science, is a vocal supporter of the coal industry and has served on the board of an oil pipeline company. We have questions for Ryan Zinke.

Do you accept that there is unequivocal scientific evidence for human caused climate change?

Congressman Zinke has said “The climate is changing, I don’t think you can deny that. But climate has always changed” continuing that “I don’t think there’s any question that man has had an influence” but that “what that influence is, exactly, is still under scrutiny.” And in October 2014, Zinke said “It’s not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either…”. In fact, there is overwhelming scientific consensus and unequivocal evidence that the global climate is warming, that since the 1950’s the dominant cause has been human influence. 

Will you support and effectively utilize nationally important climate science programs throughout DOI?

Increasing temperatures, coastal flooding and erosion, more extreme weather events, worsening wildfires and droughts, melting glaciers and thawing permafrost all represent massive risks for natural and cultural resources under the protection of the Department of the Interior (DOI) in the 500 million acres of public lands it manages. DOI’s strategic plan states that it “will bring the best science to bear to understand these consequences and will undertake mitigation, adaptation, and enhancements to support natural resilience…”

The department’s climate science stable is strong, with a formidable Climate Change Response Program in the National Park Service, and a network of eight regional Climate Science Centers (CSCs) managed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that synthesize climate impacts data to make it usable and relevant for resource managers. DOI also runs a network of 22 Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs) which bring federal and state agencies together with non-governmental organizations, tribal entities, and academic institutions to manage natural and cultural landscapes across jurisdictional boundaries, with a strong emphasis on integrating climate management.

Are you committed to do everything you can to protect our national parks in the face of climate change?

Climate change is the biggest threat to our national parks. Impacts can already be seen throughout the country, from colonial Jamestown Island to Glacier National Park, just a few miles from where Congressman Zinke was raised, in Whitefish, Montana. The National Park Service is at the cutting edge of international efforts to develop climate adaptation and resilience strategies for protected areas, but it desperately needs more resources to implement effective management strategies. The NPS has a system wide Climate Change Response Strategy and is implementing an ambitious Climate Change Action Plan. Most recently, in January 2017, the NPS published a groundbreaking Cultural Resources Climate Change Strategy (CRCCS) which lays out key policies needed to protect America’s heritage in a rapidly warming world, including advocating the incorporation of climate science into all planning for cultural resources management.

Will you fight for the budget and resources our national parks need?

Americans love their national parks, and in 2016 a record 325 million people visited them. The national park system is the envy of the world, but it is being starved of resources – not just for climate response, but for all aspects of its operations. The latest report from the National Park Service detailed a backlog of nearly $12 billion in deferred maintenance. The parks support $30 billion in economic activity and nearly 300,000 jobs. The budget for the NPS has been cut by 12% ($364 million in the last five years).

Climate change is driving worsening wildfires in the West. Are you committed to helping to coordinate and implement an effective federal response?

Rising temperatures have created a longer wildfire season and drier conditions that together with forest management strategies, fire suppression policies and increased development at the wildland-urban Interface are causing bigger, more damaging and costly fires. The US Forest Service and DOI are together the coordinating federal agencies for wildfire response and management. UCS has noted the urgent need to update federal wildfire policies and budgeting in line with what we know about the growing influence of climate change. Legislation has been proposed to invest in hazardous fuels management, fire-fighting technology and improved fire-mapping. However, a budget fix is also needed. In a June 2016 U.S. Senate hearing, Robert Bonnie, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment, USDA, testified that: “The single most important step Congress can take to advance forest health and resilience is to enact a comprehensive fire budget solution—one that addresses both the growth of fire programs as a percent of the agency’s budget and the compounding annual problem of transferring funds from non-fire programs to cover the cost of fire suppression.”. To date, Ryan Zinke’s record shows that his preferred response to the worsening wildfire situation is merely to increase logging and timber extraction, ostensibly to reduce fire risk.

Are you committed to keeping America’s public lands public for the benefit of all Americans?

Congressman Zinke has said giving away public lands is “a non-starter … in Montana, our public lands are part of our heritage.” He even resigned as a member of the Republican Party Platform committee last year in protest at moves to make public land transfers part of the platform. But in January 2016, after being nominated for the position of Interior Sectretary, Zinke voted for a House rules package that included a measure to make transfers of public land cost-free and budget neutral, considerably easing the path for future privatization which would no longer require costs of transfers to be offset with other spending or budget cuts. Zinke says he hasn’t changed his view on public lands transfers to state, local or private hands, but can he be trusted to hold the line?

Will you fully implement the DOI policy on scientific integrity?

DOI has one of the strongest scientific integrity policies of all government departments. It safeguards against political interference in department science and grants its scientists freedom to communicate their science. The policy aims to ensure that Interior Department decision-making can rely on robust and trustworthy science of the highest quality. It encourages “an environment of rigorous and honest investigation, open discussion, and constructive peer review, free of political influence that is needed for good science to thrive.” DOI scientists and scholars are also encouraged to participate in professional societies and scientific meetings, as well as talk to the media about their work. But the policy is only as good as its implementation. It is crucial that Representative Zinke prioritize scientific integrity at his agency.

Have you changed your mind about supporting air and water safeguards on mining, oil and gas operations?

In 2015 the League of Conservation Voters scored Ryan Zinke at a miserable 3% for his environmental record. He has voted to weaken the Clean Water Rule proposed by the EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers and to remove safeguards on air and water protections, including from chemicals in fracking and stream pollution from mountain-top mining.

Can we trust you to limit fossil fuel infrastructure that will negatively impact our public lands, environment and cultural resources?

“I always side with Montana Coal Country,” Congressman Zinke said in a campaign ad in 2016, and he has been a major champion of the Gateway Pacific Terminal in Washington which would be the transport hub for increased coal experts from the western states, to Pacific Rim countries. The terminal was denied a permit by the US Army Corps of Engineers on the basis that the Lummi tribe’s treat-protected fishing rights would be affected and has been opposed by communities through which coal trains would pass.

Zinke also served on the board of an oil pipeline technology company from 2012 to 2015 and has been an outspoken supporter of the Keystone pipeline since being elected to Congress. Zinke is likely to be at the center of any renewed fight to on routing the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL). In December 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declined to grant an easement for DAPLK to pass through land sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and vital for cultural important water resources. The Corps will now prepare an Environmental Impacts Statement for alternative routes, and Zinke as Interior Secretary will likely play a central role in the future of the pipeline.

Adam Markham

Adam Markham, Deputy Director of Climate and Energy, directs the Union of Concerned Scientists’ special initiative on climate impacts. Prior to joining UCS in 2013, Mr. Markham was president of Clean Air-Cool Planet, a non-profit organization he co-founded in 2000 to promote innovative community-based solutions to climate change in the Northeast. Previously, he directed World Wildlife Fund’s climate campaign, leading WWF’s international climate team at the 1997 Kyoto Conference.

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