Congressman Ryan Zinke
can’t seem to stay out of the headlines lately. He won reelection in November. He was nominated
to Donald Trump’s cabinet in December. And just this Tuesday, he rankled conservationists by voting for a bill that would ease congressional transfers
of federal lands to state or local control. His office has been increasingly mum on these developments, either supplying boilerplate statements or, as in the case of his nomination to the Interior, declining to even acknowledge receipt of email inquiries from the Indy
. Spokeswoman Heather Swift offered only this in response to Zinke’s Tuesday vote on Republican Utah Rep. Rob Bishop’s controversial proposal:
"The Congressman's position on federal lands and their ownership has not changed."
Slipping through the cracks of all this Zinke news was the November release of his new book
, American Commander: Serving a Country Worth Fighting For and Training the Brave Soldiers Who Lead the Way
. The 240-page tome—an autobiography of sorts penned with an assist from American Sniper
author Scott McEwen—offers rare insights into Zinke’s mind at a time when comments from him are harder to come by. It’s an admittedly tough read, unfolding less like a chronological narrative and more like a series of tales told elbow-to-elbow in some Montana dive bar. But if you can tolerate the constant tangents, the dangling threads, the generals and Navy SEALs and NFL stars who flit in and out, there are some interesting passages pertinent to the Interior post
Zinke now appears destined for.
is fond of describing himself as an avid outdoorsman, though American Commander spends virtually no time in Montana’s backcountry. The closest readers come to adventuring alongside Zinke in the elements comes during his recollection of hoofing it through the jungles of Thailand while on assignment with his SEAL crew. It’s a vivid passage, replete with game trails and swamps and Zinke’s leg “nearly black from being covered by leeches.” Mostly it leaves you thirsting for a similar glimpse of the home-state rivers and trails Zinke repeatedly says he loves.
What we do glimpse, however briefly, is the genesis of Zinke’s espoused soft-spot for wildlands. He got his start in the Boy Scouts of America, where he “learned how to cook, camp, and use a compass.” He describes the first time he turned a “critical eye” on the environment, conducting an Eagle Scout project that tested soil and water samples from the Whitefish River to gauge pollution from the nearby railroad’s oil-holding ponds.
The BSA has always been at the forefront of environmental awareness: You put out fires you build. You leave a campsite cleaner and better than when you found it. You respect wildlife and habitat. This is in addition to the cliche of helping elderly citizens cross a street—which isn’t a bad quality either, this idea that we should slow down and help one another.
Zinke has long cast himself as a conservationist and politician in the Teddy Roosevelt mold. And he’s fond of quoting the irascible former president. In discussing his beliefs about land management, Zinke invokes not only Roosevelt but the first chief forester of Roosevelt’s then-new U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot. The result is something of a mixed bag when it comes to natural resource development on public lands:
Both Roosevelt and Pinchot understood that public lands are best managed for multiple use, and natural resources are to be used for the benefit of greater public good, not just for a select group of special interests. The same president who established one hundred and fifty national forests, fifty-one bird reservations, five national parks, and eighteen monuments is also quoted as saying, "Conservation means development as much as it does protection." Planned use did not mean "no use" but rather "managing use" of our resources based on scientific methodology and sound public policy.
Sprinkled throughout American Commander
are more than a few eyebrow-raising comments about environmental issues, including quips about climate change, chastisement of Obama over his “war on fossil fuels,” and Zinke’s apparent doubts about whether sage grouse populations have actually declined. He criticizes the supposed exclusivity of trails geared toward those “able to backpack in or ride on horseback” and calls out conservation organizations for pursuing litigation that has “stopped timber sales from removing dead trees," and criticized efforts to close roads and ban bikes from public lands. The closest Zinke comes to providing a thorough picture of how he’ll approach the duties of Secretary of Interior is a chapter dedicated mostly to energy independence. Coal gets only a passing mention here, as do alternative energy sources.
It is indisputable that America has the ability to extract and refine fossil fuels, including coal, oil, and gas, in a responsible manner under reasonable environmental and safety regulations … The alternative is to continue to be held hostage to foreign oil- and gas-producing countries that not only don’t have enforceable environmental standards, but are frequently our enemies or global competitors. Whether one accepts climate change or not, the promotion of domestically produced energy under reasonable regulation is far better than foreign-produced energy under no regulation at all.
What may be most telling is Zinke’s repeated assertion that efficiency and success are best achieved when decisions are left to those on the front lines. It’s delivered as a denunciation of the growing military bureaucracy, but viewed in the context of several votes last year and at least one passage favoring “prioritizing collaboration,” it could be seen as a call for more local control of public lands management.
Moving decisions down to people who have relevant, ground-level data and experience makes sense. It’s entirely possible that there are man-made reasons for the sage grouse’s population drop—if there has been a population drop at all, of course. But the people most likely to have that data and experience are those who live and work where the sage grouse are, not those who go to work on the Interstate 395 in DC.
And, because you’re curious and because Zinke joked about the issue
backstage at a 2014 debate, here’s some of what American Commander
has to say about torture:
I may as well confess here and now that those are the situations where you want to have the freedom to interrogate your prisoner using any method possible. I know it’s wrong; I know it’s probably immoral. I know all of that. But there’s that calculus again: when you weigh the cruel discomfort of one individual versus the benefits of saving lives, the morality gets shady. Real shady, real fast.