Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke Resigns—What You Need to Know

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After 22 months in office, Interior Secretary Zinke recently announced his intention to resign at the end of the year.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced Saturday that he will resign from President Trump’s Cabinet at the end of the year amid government ethics investigations.

“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,” President Trump wrote in a tweet.

A former U.S. Navy SEAL commander and Montana congressman, Zinke will have served as Interior Secretary for 22 months, from March 1, 2017 to December 31, 2018. He replaced Sally Jewell, who was President Obama’s second and final Interior Secretary.

Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt will likely take over as acting head of the department, according to the New York Times. Bernhardt is a former lobbyist for the oil, gas and water industries. If Bernhardt isn’t nominated by President Trump to permanently fill the slot, other candidates might include former Representative Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming; Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes; Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt; Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter; former Nevada Senator Dean Heller; Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state; and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, as reported by Business Insider.

What does the Interior Secretary do?

Ryan Zinke has served as America’s 52nd Secretary of the Interior. In this position, he has overseen the management of most of our federal lands and natural resources. The Department of the Interior (DOI) currently manages about 20 percent of our nation’s lands, according to the Department of the Interior (DOI). The DOI’s jurisdiction includes the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and more.

The agency, which employs more than 70,000 people, oversees the resources that supply up to 30 percent of the nation’s energy. The DOI controls water management in 17 Western states, as well as supplying resources for 15 percent of the nation’s hydropower energy. The department is also responsible for migratory bird and wildlife conservation, historic preservation, endangered species conservation, surface-mined lands protection and restoration, mapping and much more. As the lead agency tasked with conserving and managing extensive federal lands for the “benefit and enjoyment of the American people,” the department can play a major role in sustaining the country’s recreation traditions and in assuring opportunities to enjoy nature as the population grows.

The Secretary of the Interior serves on and appoints private citizens to the National Park Foundation board. As a member of the president’s Cabinet, the secretary advises the president on myriad high-level issues, especially land management.

Why is Zinke resigning?

Zinke’s resignation comes amid investigations into his ethics, including a probe into a land development project he was linked to in Whitefish, Montana. Investigators are determining whether this was a conflict of interest, the Washington Post reported.

The secretary has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. “I love working for the President and am incredibly proud of all the good work we've accomplished together,” Zinke wrote on Twitter when he announced his resignation. “However, after 30 years of public service, I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations.”

The secretary’s resignation is the latest in a series of recent dismissals and resignations by the Trump administration’s leadership: Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned in November, following the midterm elections. White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, will also be leaving at the end of December, according to the Washington Post.

What happened during his term as Interior Secretary?

Secretary Zinke’s stated priorities were “championing sportsmen’s access, conservation, regulatory relief, forest management, responsible energy development, and smart management of federal lands,” according to the DOI website.

During his tenure, he acquired a reputation for ambitious energy development, due in part to his work to reassess the nation’s offshore energy potential. This hotly debated proposal would open extensive stretches of coastal waters to oil and gas drilling. In 2017, Zinke initiated a similarly controversial review of 27 national monuments and, based on his recommendations, the president has ordered the reduction of two in Utah—Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. More changes were proposed in the initial report. These reductions are already threatening to open up the public lands for new mineral, oil and gas leasing opportunities.

Secretary Zinke also pushed for legislation to reduce the $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog in national parks and has fought to renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund in Congress. He also created the first-ever Senior National Advisor to the Secretary for Recreation, installing Rick May to advise on recreation policy issues.

And he collaborated across agencies to help advance the administration’s agenda. Working with the U.S. Border Patrol, in May 2018, he deployed the Interior Department’s resources to federal lands along the U.S.-Mexico border in an effort to stem illegal immigration. He also assisted the administration in a proposal to ease certain protections for endangered species.

What’s next?

Secretary Zinke’s tenure demonstrates just how wide the Interior Department’s mandate is and how drastically—even in a relatively short period of time—shifts in policy can alter America's landscape. Other parts of the U.S. government certainly garner headlines on a more regular basis than the DOI, but the DOI's influence covers a huge portion of our public lands, waters and wildlife. No matter who leads the DOI in the coming years, outdoor enthusiasts will want to pay close attention.

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