WHITEFISH — U.S Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, speaking on a Whitefish stage Tuesday where he once played trombone as a high school student, told the Western Governors Association that he wants to heal the broken trust between government and citizens, especially in the West.
Zinke said his top priority is regaining the public’s trust in the agencies charged with managing public lands.
“Particularly out West, there seems to be a breach of trust,” Zinke said. “Some of this is the political arena we live in today, but there’s a trust between the people and our government in some places that has been breached.''
He said it bothers him when the Bureau of Land Management "is not viewed as land managers but is viewed as more law enforcement. It bothers me to go out to places where citizens don’t trust their government to be stewards.”
In some cases, Zinke said the government hasn’t upheld its obligations to be fair with its constituents.
“One of the first secretarial orders I signed was to end the practice of compensatory mitigation,'' Zinke said.
Those are the fees charged to private companies and individuals that pay for conservation elsewhere to offset harm caused by development projects on public lands.
In one case on the East Coast, Zinke said a power line company was required to spend $90 million in compensatory mitigation for a $109 million project.
“Some people would call that extortion. I call it un-American,” Zinke said.
The secretary also said he's been focused on the dwindling revenue sources that can be used to pay for crumbling infrastructure on public lands.
In 2008, Zinke said the Interior Department received $18.5 billion a year in taxes from off-shore drilling. Last year, that number had dropped to $2.6 billion.
To put that $15 billion drop in perspective, Zinke said there is currently an $11.5 billion backlog for maintenance and repair in the country’s national parks.
“We could have paid for that in one year and still had $3 billion for further investment,” Zinke said.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund that’s used to help restore and purchase wildlife habitat is also dependent on that source of funding.
“I’m looking at both sides of our balance sheet,'' he said. "When you put 94 percent of our offshore (oil fields) off limits to drilling, there’s a consequence. There’s a consequence of not harvesting trees. There’s a consequence of not using some of our public land for creation of wealth and jobs.”
Zinke said he “unabashably” is a Teddy Roosevelt fan.
“Roosevelt had a passion for protection into perpetuity,” Zinke said. “Roosevelt also had a vision of multiple use.
"Ultimately, the public land belongs to all of us.''
Zinke said the president has set a goal of energy dominance. But having served in 63 different countries as a Navy SEAL commander, Zinke said he has seen first-hand how the environment is impacted when energy resources are extracted without any type of regulation or control.
“It’s better to produce energy in the country under regulation than watch it get produced overseas with no regulation,” he said.
Zinke said the president isn’t picking winners or losers when it comes to creating that energy dominance.
“We don’t look at fossil fuels as any more important than any other resource,” he said. “But fossil fuels are a part of our energy mix and we should be advocates rather than punitive for that energy.”
Becoming a country that’s dominant in meeting both its and other countries energy demands is also important for national security.
”I never want your children, ever, to see what I’ve seen,” Zinke said. “I’m probably the last person ever to advocate for going to war, especially if it’s for energy we have here. I never want to see our country held hostage. We have a unique opportunity. Energy dominance is having the ability to export.”
That ability to export energy also can be used to check countries like Iran or Russia, he said.
Zinke said his department needs to be more visionary in its planning.
With a growing demand on the country’s national park system – 330 million visited last year – Zinke said it’s time for Interior to start making the changes required to meet that growing use.
“It’s time to look at what the Department of the Interior should be 100 years from now,” Zinke said. “It’s time to look at public lands around the park system to make sure the trails connect, make sure the wildlife corridors make sense and ensure that there is public access in place.”
The department, responsible for management of one-fifth of the nation’s territory and employing about 70,000 people, is going through a reorganization that will look for ways for the different agencies to work jointly, he said.
In addition, he said he wants Interior to ensure that states have a voice at the table in how they can integrate their efforts and needs.
“Ultimately the government works for us,” Zinke said. “That’s a novel concept. I work for you.”