In honor of Memorial Day, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke went on the alt-right news outlet Breitbart News to talk about the Trump administration’s agenda for public lands and energy development.
Under Zinke’s first year of leadership, the agency announced plans to explore opening nearly all federal waters to offshore drilling, shrunk Bears Ears National Monument by more than 1 million acres (or nearly 85 percent) and kicked off a massive reorganization effort that sets up new management territories for the nation’s public lands.
Most recently, Zinke recently told conservation groups that he was planning a “grand pivot” to conservation, ostensibly to quell some criticism of his first year as head of the Department of Interior — though his controversies have been recently overshadowed by some of President Trump’s other scandal-plagued cabinet members, like Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt.
In his interview with Breitbart editor-in-chief Alex Marlow, however, Zinke made few overtures to the administration’s reported pivot to conservation. Instead, throughout the 22-minute interview, Zinke piled on several dubious claims about the administration’s approach to environmental regulation and enforcement.
Towards the end of the interview, Marlow asked Zinke his thoughts on Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I absolutely agree with the president,” Zinke said, adding that “a nation without borders can’t exist.”
But unlike Trump — who paints the issue as a matter of national security — Zinke said that the wall would be necessary in part to stop environmental degradation at the border caused by illegal crossing and drug trafficking.
“It’s a national security issue, a national defense issue, it’s a humanitarian crisis, and oh, by the way, it’s an environmental crisis,” Zinke said.
Zinke isn’t the only Republican politician to use environmental issues as a scapegoat for building the wall. In February, Republican lawmakers in the house introduced two separate bills that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to waive a number of cornerstone environmental laws — including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act — when constructing the wall, citing things like garbage left by people crossing the border.
But the wall itself — both its construction and maintenance — would not be without environmental issues. To build the wall, DHS would need to build roads and haul construction material through at least two wildlife refuges. One such refuge, the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, is home to at least 400 species of birds, 450 types of plants, and half of the butterfly species found in North America. In July of 2017, a federal official told the Texas Observer that construction of the wall would “essentially destroy the refuge.”
The spending bill passed by Congress in March prohibits the administration from using federal funds to build in the refuge, though it’s unclear how long those restrictions will remain in place.
But it’s not just the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge that could be at risk from the wall. According to a 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife report, more than 100 animals that are listed as endangered, threatened, or candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act could be affected by the border wall.
Zinke spent much of the interview talking about the Trump administration’s approach to energy dominance, which he argues should take place in the United States because “America produces energy much better, much cleaner than any other country.”
For Trump, energy dominance has largely translated to fossil fuel extraction. Under the Interior Department, has proposed opening up massive amounts of the coast to offshore drilling, has relaxed regulations on oil and gas drilling, and has pushed ahead with increased fossil fuel leasing on public lands.
Renewables, by contrast, have gotten far less love under the Trump administration — which makes it all the more bizarre that Zinke would tell Breitbart that the president is “clearly all of the above” when it comes to energy. Even more bizarre is the fact that Zinke immediately cited wind energy as an example of the administration’s “all of the above” energy policy, because Trump hates wind energy.
The origin of Trump’s unique distaste for wind energy goes back many years, to a proposed wind farm off the shore of one of his golf properties in Scotland. Trump fought the Scottish government over that proposal, even writing a letter in 2012 to then-head of the Scottish government where he called wind turbines “monsters” (the project was recently completed, despite Trump’s objections).
On the campaign trail — and as president — Trump has repeatedly disparaged wind energy, falsely claiming that it “kills all the birds” (it does not kill all the birds, it kills between 140,000 and 368,000 birds annually, far fewer than are killed by cell phone towers or cats).
In the Breitbart interview, Zinke called critics of the Trump administration’s decision to reduce the size of Bears Ears National Monument “elitists” who can afford to visit public lands and spend heavily on expensive trips.
“I look out after the American public that works hard during the week and wants to take their fishing pole out on the weekend or hike a trail or drive a boat or recreate on America’s land,” Zinke said. “I think public access should be one of our principle goals.”
But Zinke’s proposals as Interior Secretary haven’t exactly been about looking out for the working class Americans that can’t afford a trip to one of America’s national parks.
In October of 2017, the Interior Department proposed raising entrance fees at 17 national parks during their busiest season to $70, something that the former superintendent of the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia said would be “a huge increase” and “a real deterrent for many people to visit national parks.”
After public outcry, Zinke and the administration walked back the proposal. But during a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in March, Zinke specifically called out groups that get discounted or free passes to national parks, such as “elderly, fourth graders, veterans, disabled.”
“When you give discounted or free passes…and you do it by the carload, there’s not a whole lot of people who actually pay at our front door,” Zinke said. “So, we’re looking at ways to make sure we have more revenue in the front door of our parks themselves.”
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