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Ryan Zinke, Montanan by birth, former Navy Seal, former U.S. Representative from Montana, is the United States secretary of the interior.

That should make Montanans proud.

Unfortunately, in the seven months since March 2, when Zinke rather incongruously rode a horse named Tonto to work in Washington wearing a black Stetson and sitting in an English saddle, he’s made news for a lot of the wrong reasons.

Some of his actions are fully expected, fulfilling Trump campaign promises and taking steps that many conservatives – not conservationists – in the West fully support and applaud, and we understand this. He has moved to rescind hydraulic fracturing safety laws on federal lands, to downsize several national monuments, and to reduce the size of his own agency by nearly 20 percent, potentially cutting 4,000 employees.

But politics aside, other moves have been much more problematic.

He’s been accused of trying to get rid of climate scientists (part of a perceived purge in several federal agencies) and has moved some 50 top managers into positions for which they lack experience and expertise.

Last week he was roundly criticized for saying in a speech to oil executives that a third of his agency is disloyal to him and to the President.

Then, on Thursday, it was revealed that Zinke and several staffers had chartered an oil company plane for a flight from Las Vegas to Montana in June, costing taxpayers $12,375. Zinke joined a growing list of Trump administration officials facing backlash over their use of private or military aircraft for government business, including Health Secretary Tom Price, who lost his job over it.

Zinke, speaking to the conservative Heritage Foundation (he seems to like friendly venues) on Friday called the flap over his travel “a little BS.” He added, “I fly coach” except when commercial flight schedules aren’t sufficient.

We believe taking the oil-company charter from Vegas to Kalispell showed poor judgment. We trust that the furor over Cabinet members flying to and from “the swamp” on fancy, expensive airplanes causes Zinke to rethink his view that the controversy is “BS.” It’s not. It’s about a lack of government accountability and disregard for the taxpayer – things Republicans have long railed against when they didn’t involve their own behavior.

In Zinke’s case, this matter is particularly troubling because he got into hot water during his military service for taking frequent flights home on the government dime.

Ryan Zinke still has time to make Montanans proud. But by not taking the travel issue seriously and choosing defiance over contrition, he is still hitting the wrong notes.

This editorial was originally published in The Montana Standard. 


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