When Donald Trump appointed Ryan Zinke to head the United States Department of the Interior, there was undoubtedly a meeting between the two men. Trump, who from all appearances has never visited a national park in his lifetime, would have received assurances from Zinke that the nation’s public lands and water were ripe for wholesale exploitation in order to secure the continued flow of large financial contributions from gas, oil and mining companies to help pay for Trump’s (and other Republicans’) re-election campaigns. Zinke, for his part, would likely have also received assurances (implicit, of course) of a lucrative “acknowledgement” of some type for himself after he had finished rendering his services.
The two would then have expressed their mutual understanding that our lands and waterways controlled by the taxpayer-funded Interior Department (20% of the surface land in the United States) could be sold off or leased and despoiled if those same oil, gas and mining companies demanded it. No thought was given to the fact that those lands belonged by right to the American public, because neither of these men placed any value on preserving the environment, or (for that matter) actually cared about the interests of the public.
Zinke proved himself reasonably adept at his task, selling off huge pieces of our national monuments and opening up public lands for permanent drilling, mining and eventual destruction. As a result of his tenure many of our country’s most beautiful places have been or will be permanently eradicated or despoiled, their priceless value to Americans seeking solace or comfort in their beauty lost for good. As a bonus, Zinke also displayed a contemptuous, bullying arrogance towards his critics. He was eventually forced out because the corruption he had brought to the Department was becoming an embarrassment and distraction even to Trump, who was already coping with his own endemic corruption problems. After his departure, Zinke will almost certainly be rewarded for his decimation of the environment by those same companies whose interests he served, albeit at Americans’ expense.
John Jarvis, the 18th director of the National Park Service, served this country for 40 years under ten separate Secretaries of the Interior. Following this week’s announced departure of Zinke, Jarvis penned a piece for the Guardian expressing his horror and disgust at the damage this so-called steward of our resources did to our country.
Millions of acres that were available for outdoor recreation will now be held by private companies for fossil fuel development. Many distinguished career public servants will be gone and many mid-level employees will be reconsidering their career choices. Regulations that protect our air, water and wildlife will be weakened and need rebuilding. And our options for addressing climate change will have been narrowed. The one thing that the Zinke administration cannot rewrite is history, and history will not be kind to his tenure.
One gets the strong sense that Jarvis would not have written this critique if he and Zinke had merely been at opposite ideological poles. Because there is more than a simple undercurrent of disappointment here on Jarvis’ part—he is genuinely appalled that someone who turned out to be so abominably anti-environment as Zinke could have actually been appointed to this position.
Under Zinke’s flag, national monuments were carved up and reopened for development, exemplified by the reduction of Bears Ears national monument under the guise of a “review” under which Native American input was left out and public opposition ignored. Policies that planned for climate change’s impacts on national parks were rescinded, and leasing of public lands for development was accelerated (despite a glut of oil).
Career public servants, such as the superintendent of Yellowstone national park, were randomly moved to force their retirements, and others were threatened with either a forced reassignment or a complete elimination of their program. Climate scientists were told to edit their own research, eliminating any reference to human causes (but fortunately some refused).
In addition to willfully destroying Americans’ lands, Zinke’s tenure can be described as a calculated exercise in purposeful, malign neglect.
Zinke rolled out a series of poorly conceived ideas: eliminate national park passes for the active military and fourth graders, increase national park entrance fees by several orders of magnitude, and require upfront payment for first amendment protests on the National Mall. Two years after he took the reins, the positions of director of the National Park Service and head of the US Fish and Wildlife Service remain vacant, unprecedented in history, leaving the two agencies rudderless and adrift.
As Trump’s cabinet officials leave one by one in various forms of disgrace, they tend to be forgotten. In some cases, the damage they have done can be repaired by a subsequent Administration. But in other cases the damage they do is permanent. In destroying our property and taking away our childrens’ birthright, all to line his own pockets and those of Donald Trump and the Republican party, Ryan Zinke permanently damaged our country. For that reason Jarvis clearly wants his name and tenure remembered, to be vilified, spat upon and uttered as a curse for a long, long time.
We should oblige him.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.