Trump card: Ryan Zinke and the battle for America’s public lands

This is a legacy that will still be impacting both people and planet long after he’s gone.


On Thursday, March 2nd, the newly appointed American Secretary of the Interior literally rode through Washington, DC on horseback to begin his first day on the job. This stunt aside, in the months since, Ryan Zinke, a former Navy Seal and Montana Congressman, has managed to stay out of the public eye.

Although he’s very right-wing, Zinke is a more nuanced figure than his boss and the publicity he’s gotten has been in outlets that Trump probably doesn’t read, like Scientific American, which profiled the Secretary shortly after he was nominated for his current job. While he has said his role model in terms of his position is Teddy Roosevelt, who significantly expanded federal lands during his presidency, Zinke will likely have to walk a fine line in terms of some in the Republican base, especially in the American west, who would like to see much of this land returned to the states.

Considering the current President’s tendency to become enraged when his subordinates are in the spotlight, keeping a low profile is probably a wise strategy on Zinke’s part. At the same time, the quietness with which the Secretary of the Interior is doing his job might have the effect of making him, and others like Scott Pruitt (EPA) and Rick Perry (Dept. of Energy), who are taking a similar tack, that much more dangerous, as they proceed to gut their agencies and the regulations they’re supposed to enforce.

While Trump’s domestic legislative record is dismal thus far, his use of executive orders, and similar edicts from some in his administration, is a strategy that was sometimes used effectively by his predecessor. The problem with governing in this manner is that, while it can be used to get around Congressional gridlock, in many cases, these orders will be overturned by future administrations, a process that began quickly under Trump.

Many of the Obama administration’s orders, with an emphasis on regulatory ones, are now being reversed and new ones created, especially in terms of federal lands long targeted by extractive industries for exploitation. While the most egregious of these new orders will likely be reversed under a future Democratic administration, a lot of damage could be done in the meantime (and one never knows when it comes to corporatist politicians from both parties).

As the person in charge most of the United States’ federal lands as well administrating programs involving the country’s native peoples, Secretary Zinke is already playing an important role in this process.

Ties to energy interests

Although the news media tends to concentrate on the Secretary’s time as a Navy Seal and a politician, it’s telling that Zinke was a consultant for and on the board of QS Energy (formerly Save the World Air), a company that claims to have a system that can increase the flow of oil through pipelines, from 2012-2015. And this isn’t his only tie to the oil and gas industry, during his time in Congress, his second biggest donor was a large fracking concern, Texas-based Oasis Petroleum.

As reported by in the 2016 story cited above, the company, “owns a North Dakota well that leaked more than 67,000 gallons of crude oil last year and another that blew out and killed two workers in 2011“.

Speaking to Bloomberg before Zinke was confirmed, David Pomerantz of the San Francisco Based Energy and Policy Institute made a point about him that most environmentalists would concur with, “Deep ties to the oil pipeline industry are not what we need in a Secretary of the Interior when oil companies would drill for every last drop beneath the public’s lands if they could get away with it.”

It isn’t just the opening up of public lands for exploitation by energy and mining interests that should worry American citizens, especially those living near them. One of the new Interior Secretary’s first acts on taking office was to revoke Director’s Order No. 219,  issued a day before President Obama’s 2nd term in office ended, an order which would have phased out use of lead bullets and fishing tackle in national wildlife refuges by 2022.

Let them eat lead

Cleverly taking a page from Trump’s populist playbook, Zinke claimed that he revoked the directive because he worried, “about hunting and fishing becoming activities for the land-owning elite.”

While it’s true there is a cost differences between lead and non-lead bullets, with premium bullets fetching similar prices but cheaper non-lead ones costing between 50% and 100% more, as explained by the conservation group, Hunting With Non Lead, “Many hunters feel that the cost of the ammo used represents a tiny percentage of the total costs involved with going on a big game hunt,” making Zinke’s statement seem disingenuous at best.

First, it’s not unreasonable to assume that as lead is phased out, the price of other types of ammunition will go down as demand for non- toxic ammunition grows. Second, Zinke’s statement ignores the impact that lead contamination has, and will continue to have, not only on people but on the flora and fauna that these lands were federalized to protect for future generations.

As explained by the Center for Biological Diversity on the webpage for their Get the Lead Out campaign, “In the United States, an estimated 3,000 tons of lead are shot into the environment by hunting each year, another 80,000 tons are released at shooting ranges, and 4,000 tons are lost in ponds and streams as fishing lures and sinkers – while as many as 20 million birds and other animals die each year from subsequent lead poisoning.”

By turning the argument against lead bullets and tackle in protected areas into a class issue, Zinke is using a right wing bait and switch tactic that has become increasingly familiar to activists in the Age of Trump. While less crude, it reminds one of the President’s calls for an increase in coal production during his campaign in the name of job creation, finding, as a friend recently put it, a 19th century solution for a 21st century problem.

While protecting wild areas for their own sake shouldn’t be controversial, in the current political climate it may be necessary to focus on the obvious risks of lead contamination for human beings, especially those ‘working class’ hunters that Zinke seems to care so much about.

In an academic paper on deer hunting with lead bullets produced by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the authors point out that thousands of pounds of venison are donated to food pantries in the United States each year, often a last resort of the working poor, and that because of this, the use of lead bullets might actually have a greater effect on the populations that use these services than others.

On impact, lead bullets fragment and can shed up to half of their mass, a process that is invisible to the hunter. These small fragments remain in parts of the kill later consumed by both people and other animals that feed off of what is left behind.

Implementing the overturned ban was important because, as Debora Weiss an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer at the CDC explained to CNN in February, “There are no safe levels of lead in the human body.”

This should be of more concern for the Secretary of the Interior than the cost of ammunition or bait and tackle, as the effects of lead poisoning are well known. In children, who are more sensitive to its effects, it can lead to a whole host of problems from lower IQ to delayed puberty to hearing loss.

Thankfully for both the U.S. and its North American neighbors, considering that Mother Nature doesn’t recognize borders, some states, led by California, have produced their own legislation to ban the use of lead bullets throughout their territories. However, like almost any legislation, implementation takes time. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife‘s web-site, California Assembly Bill 711, which passed in October of 2013, is being implemented in three phases and won’t be fully in force until July 1st of 2019.

While the presidential spectacle currently underway in the United States is often terrifying, it needs to be remembered that Trump’s antics also provide a perfect distraction, allowing him and his cronies to undo vital environmental protections to enrich extractive industries that have have traditionally leaned Republican in terms of donations. This is a legacy that will still be impacting both people and planet long after he’s gone.


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