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Trump Administration Seeks New DOI Secretary After Zinke Steps Down

January 25, 2019

Ryan Zinke stepped down as Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) at the end of 2018.

After making numerous regulatory reforms over the past two years. Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) Ryan Zinke stepped down from his position at the end of 2018.

President Donald Trump accepted Zinke’s December 15 resignation, tweeting “Secretary of the Interior @RyanZinke will be leaving the Administration at the end of the year after having served for a period of almost two years. Ryan has accomplished much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation.”

Zinke, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives (R-MT), assumed office in March 2017. During his tenure as DOI secretary, Zinke reduced regulations, increased American energy production, and led an effort to “right-size” several national monuments. On February 4, Trump selected Deputy Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, who had been serving as Acting Secretary of the Interior since January 2, as his nominee to replace Zinke as Interior Department Secretary.

Reduced Regulations

Zinke advanced Trump’s America First energy agenda, in part by reducing regulations DOI found to be duplicative and unnecessarily expensive or restrictive without providing compensatory environmental protection.

In fiscal years 2017 and 2018, DOI reduced the cumulative regulatory burden on industries affected by its regulations by more than $6 billion, according to agency reports. DOI also updated and expedited the approval process for infrastructure and energy projects on federal lands.

Additionally, DOI streamlined the permitting system under the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), cutting the regulations from thousands of pages to just 150. The streamlined system accelerated the permitting timeframe from a years-long process to a matter of months.

Zinke’s deregulatory efforts have had a strong, positive effect on the nation, says James Taylor, a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News.

“Secretary Zinke saved taxpayers literally billions of dollars by streamlining energy permitting and reducing economically stifling regulations,” said Taylor. “Zinke proved a wise and effective environmental steward of public lands. Economic production and environmental stewardship can go hand-in-hand, as Secretary Zinke proved.”

Ended ‘Sue and Settle’

In September 2018, Zinke issued Secretarial Order 3368, ending “sue and settle” litigation, a common practice among previous administrations.

Before S.O. 3368, environmental activist groups regularly filed costly lawsuits against the federal government, which often ended with settlement agreements changing Interior Department policies and paying millions of dollars to activist groups. Negotiations for many of these agreements were legally sealed, and, being reached outside of the normal regulatory process, were often completed without consultation with parties affected by the agreements, and no public consultation or comment period was allowed.

S.O. 3368 disallows such secret agreements. Zinke said he hoped the policy would increase the transparency of settlement negotiations and legal proceedings and expand public participation, all in an effort to improve DOI’s performance while reducing the number of taxpayer-funded legal settlements.

‘America First’ Energy

Under Zinke’s tenure at DOI, the United States became the global leader in oil and gas production, with the administration’s “America First” energy policies turning the United States into a net energy exporter and resulting in federal energy revenues growing by more than $3 billion since 2017.

Over the past two years, DOI has lifted bans on hydraulic fracturing, has increased coal mining on federal lands, and initiated a plan to take advantage of America’s massive offshore oil and natural gas reserves, which the administration of President Barack Obama had impeded.

Taylor says the America First plan has led to increased energy production.

“When the environmental Left could not get Congress or state legislators to ban fossil fuel production, their allies in the Obama administration came to their aid, imposing regulatory obstacles that effectively stifled energy production on federal lands,” Taylor said. “America has emerged as the world’s dominant energy producer under President Trump, and Secretary Zinke played a significant role in that accomplishment.”

Relief and Rescue Improvements

Citing U.S Forest Service data showing overgrown forests are a leading cause of wildfires such as those that destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres in California in 2018 and burned millions of acres across the western United States in recent years, Zinke issued a Secretarial Order allowing forest managers to thin overgrown forests across the nation.

Zinke also worked extensively with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide assistance in areas affected by hurricanes and typhoons.

Increased Public Access

Zinke’s decision to “right-size” the Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand Staircase National Monument, among reforms to several other such preservation areas, restored more than two million acres of federal land for public uses. Under Zinke’s tenure, DOI also expanded hunting and fishing to an additional five million acres of federal land.

Zinke strengthened the relationship between DOI, local governments, and the American people, says Taylor.

“Secretary Zinke restored proper local input and oversight to government lands,” said Taylor. “For too long, federal agencies and bureaucrats have been accumulating more and more land for oversight from Washington DC, believing state and local governments and private individuals could not be trusted to manage their own lands.

“Secretary Zinke will always be appreciated, especially by people in the West, where the federal government owns so much land, for returning power and trust to the American people,” Taylor said.

Unsure of Future Progress

Shawn Regan, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center, says the next DOI secretary should continue the progress made under Zinke.

“With Secretary Zinke’s departure, the future of the Interior Department is unknown,” Regan said. “The next secretary should ensure progress continues to be made to address the growing maintenance backlog in national parks, improve the Endangered Species Act to promote species recovery, and to streamline the Interior Department to make it more efficient and responsive to local needs.”

Chris Talgo (ctalgo@heartland.org) is an editor at The Heartland Institute.