Ryan Zinke, Trump’s appointee for Secretary of the Interior, is an all-American guy. Evidence: he was a Navy SEAL, he once called Hillary Clinton the “Antichrist”, and perhaps most importantly, he rides a horse to do his government work .
Ryan Zinke wants to live up to his rugged, western predecessors, like Teddy Roosevelt. Hence, he has taken on that age old American tradition of ‘streamlining’ the federal government.
“Taking inspiration from Powell’s concept of watersheds,” Zinke said in a recent video announcement, “we are looking at reshaping our current bureau based system of regional management, and moving to a system based on ecosystems, watersheds, and science, rather than the current state or regional boundaries.”
I think every American can agree that his plan sounds pretty good. Certainly, the system of public land management we have now isn’t ideal. But there’s just one problem: Zinke’s plan has absolutely nothing to do with John Wesley Powell’s ideas or legacy, and seems more like a thinly veiled attempt to strip his own agency of staff, regulatory power, and democratic representation.
As river-runners, desert rats, and environmentalists, we take these issues pretty seriously. So, you’ll have to excuse my snarkiness here. It’s just that Zinke has messed with the legacy of the wrong one-armed explorer-naturalist-river runner-ethnographer-conservationist.
What exactly is Zinke’s plan here?
That’s a good question, and one that doesn’t seem to have a straight answer. If you were to watch his whole video announcement of the reorganization attempt you might think it was about making the department more science based, accountable, and flexible. In the video Zinke says that things like the department’s “budget, personnel, and legal” matters will remain virtually the same.
However, reading about the plan in the Washington Post leaves a different impression.
The Post states that this would be “the largest reorganization in the department’s 168-year history, moving to shift tens of thousands of workers to new locations and change the way the federal government manages more than 500 million acres of land and water across the country.” The article explains how creating the 13 proposed watershed regions would require all sorts of federal and interstate cooperation (and we all know how well the government is cooperating these days…).
But, upon closer inspection, I am doubtful that Zinke’s plan was ever meant to be in the spirit of cooperation in the first place. After all, the plan would completely eliminate certain offices, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Navajo Office, and it would ruffle the feathers of many others. The plan seems like the sort autocratic move that happens in military organizations rather than democracies.
Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told the Post, “I will say most people view this not as an attempt to streamline but an attempt to downsize” the Interior’s workforce. This would make sense, given that Zinke defended a proposed $1.6 billion budget cut to his very own department, and has suggested cutting 4000 jobs, or about 8 percent of the department’s full-time workforce.