The Wilderness Act of 1964 promises that our government will protect and preserve wilderness "for the permanent good of the whole people." Yet, in just the first year of the Trump administration, America's wilderness, public lands and wildlife legacy have been under constant attack.
One person who's right in the middle of these schemes is President Trump's Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke from Montana, who has seemingly made it his mission to destroy the promise of the Wilderness Act. As Interior Secretary, Zinke is in charge of some of the most important federal agencies that administer America's wilderness, including the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
If you don’t think Zinke has a huge impact on America's wilderness legacy, consider the fact that over 72 million acres of wilderness are under his purview. That's a whopping 66 percent of the entire acreage within our 110-million-acre National Wilderness Preservation System!
Just look at this list of some of Zinke's most anti-wilderness actions:
• Last December, Zinke released a new legal opinion designed to fast-track two mining leases in northern Minnesota so a company owned by a Chilean billionaire can construct a copper and nickel mine on the doorstep of the Boundary Waters Wilderness. The Chilean billionaire also happens to be renting a mansion to President Trump's daughter, Ivanka.
• During the recent government shutdown, Zinke signed a secret deal to bulldoze a road through the Izembek Wilderness and Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Zinke's secret deal would destroy wildlife habitat and set a terrible precedent for America's wilderness system. We think his action was also illegal, so we and our colleague organizations are suing to block him.
• Zinke has remained silent as Congress tries to pass a number of bills to amend, weaken or undermine the Wilderness Act, including a bill to open all wilderness areas to mountain bikes and other wheeled contraptions; legislation that would threaten all wilderness areas within 100 miles of the U.S. border with Canada and Mexico; and an National Rifle Association-backed "Sportsmen’s Act" that would gut the Wilderness Act and its promise of preserving areas "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man."
• With Zinke's full support, the Trump administration reversed common-sense regulations put in place by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prevent barbaric hunting practices in National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska, which include 20 million acres of Wilderness. Now, under Zinke's leadership, grossly unethical practices — like shooting denning wolves, killing hibernating bears and cubs, and catching and killing bears with traps — could return. If doing this in our national wildlife refuges in Alaska isn’t bad enough, Zinke has begun a review to open some of the national park units in Alaska to the same disgusting practices.
This is but a partial list. Zinke also supported opening the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — America’s Serengeti — to massive oil and gas development, and he gutted the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante national monuments by over 2 million acres. And he’s threatening to waive environmental and wildlife protections in many more.
Far from being a conservationist like Teddy Roosevelt, as he likes to pretend in public, Ryan Zinke is actually more modeling President Reagan’s notorious Secretary of Interior James Watt, or Warren Harding’s Interior Secretary Albert Hall of the Teapot Dome scandal. The public needs to thwart Secretary Zinke’s continued attacks on our wilderness heritage or that priceless heritage may be irreparably lost. America’s wilderness deserves far better than Ryan Zinke.
Kevin Proescholdt is the conservation director for Wilderness Watch (www.wildernesswatch.org), a national wilderness conservation organization based in Missoula.