Zinke is a Montana native and the first Navy SEAL commander to serve in Congress. During his 23 years as a SEAL, Zinke was commander of the country’s most elite SEAL Team, acting commander of Special Forces in Iraq and was awarded two bronze stars. He holds a degree in geology, an MBA in finance and a master’s degree in global leadership.
Given his incredible resume, there can be no doubt Zinke is a proven leader who knows how to accomplish a mission, but given that his policies are and will affect hunting and land-access issues on millions of acres of public lands, it is worth asking how his experience will impact our sports and our wildlife.
Zinke’s recent book American Commander (published a few months before President Donald Trump offered him the cabinet position he now occupies) offers a straightforward assessment of how he sees the federal role in local land and game management.
In the book Zinke writes:
[L]ike my hero, President Theodore Roosevelt, I love the outdoors and consider myself a traditional conservationist.
I also have special knowledge of Montana, unlike many D.C. bureaucrats who have publicly stated that oil and gas exploration is responsible for the decline of the sage grouse population in Montana.
Here’s the thing: at the time there was only one active oil derrick in the state of Montana. One. What Montana does have are ravens and crows and hawks, all of which are natural predators of the sage grouse. I know that because I’ve seen them. I also know that West Nile virus, coyotes and hawks, and wildfires are far more detrimental to sage grouse than a pump jack. What I don’t know is what a healthy population of sage grouse is, or how it’s changed, and I’m pretty sure the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Washington doesn’t either. What the BLM does know is that false tears for the sage grouse offer a very real way to arbitrarily restrict energy exploration activities. If we were serious about the sage grouse, a start would be to determine what a healthy population would look like and develop a plan to maintain it. The BLM does not seem to be interested in the number of birds; they seem to be interested only in the number of acres they can control.
Conservatives in Washington try to rein in the excesses of regulatory entities, especially nonelected regulatory bodies. We’ve shrunk the BLM’s budget in hopes of reducing its reach, but there are pitfalls. Once we do so, bureaucrats counterpunch by listing a variety of wildlife on the endangered species list, which automatically causes a new set of restrictions to come into play… . Consider the number of wildlife organizations that use these causes to raise money, despite no wildlife census to back up their claims. Oil companies face thousands of dollars in fines for the alleged death of a handful of ducks, while wind farms are given a pass for killing thousands of birds, including endangered eagles. Look at the organizations that promote so-called alternative energy sources. Many of them have a personal pocketbook interest in stopping oil and gas exploration. Do they love the environment, or do they love their investors?
This honest, on-the-ground view of bureaucracy must be humbling to bureaucrats who would like to govern from afar.
Zinke says as much:
That is why 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 D.C. The view from the Potomac is a lot different than the view from Yellowstone or the Missouri, so why does Washington think they are the same? It goes back to the same theme: Washington bureaucrats think they know how to manage nearly every aspect of our lives better than we do. But whether it’s our health-care system, our banking system, our water, or even a little bird on a prairie, Washington has it all wrong.
In his first months on the job we can see Zinke applying this philosophy to the Interior’s management of our public resources. For example, Zinke recently said this about opening ATV access to a public property: “Recreation on public lands is a big part of what we do at the Interior Department and the BLM, but for many persons with disabilities or for people who just don't get around like they used to, our public lands aren't accessible without motorized vehicles. Allowing ATVs and other vehicles in Recapture Canyon will open up opportunities for people to enjoy our public lands while still protecting the cultural and natural resources that make the place special. On my first day in office I prioritized public lands access. I’m happy to continue that mission.”
Given that the Department of the Interior has often been humorously referred to as “The Department of Everything Else,” Zinke’s philosophy will impact a huge percentage of our public lands and how we are able to use them. This makes Zinke an important figure in the Trump administration and to America’s hunters. It’s impossible to predict how much impact his governing philosophy will have, but it is worth understanding his core beliefs.
With regard to federal versus local control, he summed up his views in his book this way: “So I say, keep the centralized oversight for concerns that are truly nationwide, but allow for greater flexibility for issues that are better managed by the states or at the local level. If the Washington bureaucrats would listen, they might even discover that the answers to better management are not found within the beltway.”