The New West: Interior Department Mobster

By on May 2, 2018

Ryan Zinke’s meddling with parks reveals his unsavory character

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke dons a backward NPS hat.

Rumors of U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s brazen meddling with senior management of the National Park Service have been brewing for a year. Since early 2017, other higher-profile things have happened.

Amid carefully choreographed photo-ops—portraying him gallantly on horseback, wearing a cowboy hat, donning white gloves like a dandy to ride in a parade, and holding phony “listening sessions” on national monuments in Utah—Zinke has become a master of bait and switch.

His claims he is the modern incarnate of Theodore Roosevelt—the most conservation-minded president in U.S. history—Zinke has demonstrated an unsophisticated grasp of the value of America’s public lands, and a profound lack of intelligence when it comes to honoring the near-sacred institutions and laws he is tearing apart.

You don’t achieve Rooseveltian notches in the conservation “win” column by conducting a “review” of national monuments and then, if you don’t gut them a la Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, get to call yourself a land protector.

You don’t propose doing something bad and then, when you come to your senses or suffer a severe public backlash, get credit for not doing it.

It’s not heroic when Zinke proposed opening up America’s coastlines to expanded offshore oil and gas drilling and then reversed course when Republican friends in Congress, in a tourist-driven state like Florida, reminded him how dumb it is.

In his home state of Montana, there’s nothing noble about claiming the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument violated private property rights and resulted in onerous federal regulation even though it’s an utter myth propagated by Sagebrush Rebels.

Zinke weakened environmental laws by fiat, made a mockery of the public’s ability to comment on his poor judgment, and proposed opening millions of acres of public land to intensive oil, gas and expanded coal mining. Then, with a straight face, he claimed he is sincerely concerned about the interests of hunters, anglers and wildlife migration corridors.

One only does such things if he believes American citizens are too daft to be paying attention.

This week in another expression of bait and switch, news leaked that Zinke and his Interior lieutenants are proposing a massive shake-up of leadership in the National Park Service, allegedly to make the agency better.

Among the reported casualties, if Zinke’s plans are carried out, is Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk, who would be transferred from overseeing America’s first national park to the Washington D.C. capital region in the heart of the political swamp. 

Wenk previously served as deputy director of the entire Park Service and acting national director.

There is no other way to describe it than a punitive end-of-career demotion for Wenk, which demonstrates just how clueless President Donald Trump’s Interior Department is.

Zinke’s shameful tactics of micromanagement (and his overt anti-conservation agenda) have attracted rebuke even from government investigators.

Truth be told, Wenk should be, if anything, the new National Park Service director though as he mentioned to me once in a story I wrote for National Geographic: “To be the superintendent of Yellowstone—how could there be a more honorable post in government working on behalf of the American people?”

Far from being a controversial figure, Wenk (like a string of Yellowstone superintendents before him including Mike Finley and the late Bob Barbee) has defended the country’s mother park in accordance with the 1916 National Park Service Organic Act which mandates that resources be safeguarded.

“It is difficult to comment on someone’s exact motives and I don’t know who and what is behind them,” Phil Francis, executive director of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks and Park Service veteran, said of Zinke. “At the end of the day the end result [of Zinke’s policies related to the Park Service and public lands] have not been good.”

Francis noted how Zinke re-tooled the National Park Service’s citizen advisory board so it’s now comprised almost entirely of people who view parks not as national treasures but venues for commercial exploitation.

Notable is that Denis Galvin, a widely-respected retired Park Service careerist was passed over by Zinke because Galvin is considered too resource-protection oriented.

Meanwhile, Zinke has proposed pumping billions into addressing the Park Service’s crumbling infrastructure (in order to pack more people into parks) but he seems completely aloof in understanding how budget cuts, sequestration, crackdowns on free speech, and his overt anti-science agenda have decimated employee morale, Francis said.

When the federal government created the Senior Executive Service ranks, part of the motivation was to prevent the heavy-handed political meddling Zinke is now demonstrating with Wenk and other senior-management colleagues.

One thing Zinke could do to redeem himself is halt these ill-advised moves and keep Wenk in Yellowstone where he belongs.

Another is having the courage to meet with Francis. Cumulatively, he and his coalition colleagues have more than 30,000 years of hard-earned experience managing America’s crown jewel and publicly-beloved national parks.

Regardless, Zinke needs to recognize: if he messes with Yellowstone, he’s playing with hellfire. 

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal, is author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at

About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (which just published a long piece on climate change in Greater Yellowstone), is also author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at

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