When he issued the April executive order to review the national monuments, President Donald Trump justified his actions by describing our national monuments as “a massive federal land grab.” Ryan Zinke’s Department of the Interior has upheld that narrative of government overreach, while at the same time dismissing the massive outpouring of public support for the monuments. Instead, he turned his ear to the oil companies when he wrote up the report recommending the reduction of at least three monuments—the names of the others are still a secret.
During the review, Zinke put on a show of visiting monuments and speaking to local interests and individuals. Yet those visits often ignored organizations that play a key role in communities surrounding those monuments. In Utah, for instance, he denied meetings with both the Escalante Chamber of Commerce (Escalante lies just outside the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument), and the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, which was instrumental in advocating for Native American interests in the creation of that protected land. Instead of meeting with these local leaders, Zinke devoting most of his time to pro-extraction politicians.
He also suspended the Bureau of Land Management's Resource Advisory Councils—an official mechanism put in place in 1995 to solicit local input on land management. “RACs are sounding boards for BLM initiatives, regulatory proposals and policy changes," reads the BLM's website. The RACs met several times a year to vote on management recommendations, and those results were in turn considered during monument policymaking.
Then, of course, there are the public comments the DOI solicited online. Over 2.8 million people wrote in, with 99.2 percent of them opposing the elimination or reduction of our monuments. Yet Zinke still recommended Trump downsize.
So, if Zinke’s not listening to local stakeholders, local communities, or the general public who is he listening to? Demonstrably, oil companies.
According to FOIA disclosures filed by the The Washington Post, the schedules of Zinke’s first two months in office were dominated by meetings with the oil and gas industry.
The paper reports:
“Zinke held more than a half-dozen meetings with executives from nearly two dozen oil and gas firms during the period, including BP America, Chevron and ExxonMobil. He also spent time with the American Petroleum Institute, the Western Energy Alliance and Continental Resources chief executive Harold Hamm. Several of these discussions covered executive actions the administration would later take in an effort to reverse President Barack Obama’s policies, such as limits on drilling off America’s coasts and the venting of methane from drilling operations on federal and tribal land.”
In March, Zinke took a meeting with the American Petroleum Institute at Washington D.C.’s Trump Hotel. The next day, the DOI announced it would reduce the amount of royalties fossil fuel extraction companies would pay the federal government to operate on public land.
In April, David Bernhardt was hired to serve as Zinke’s deputy. Bernhardt previously worked as an oil lobbyist, advocating for the interests of companies like Haliburton.
The oil and gas industry isn’t being shy about the success of its efforts. Immediately following the announcement of the monuments review, the Institute for Energy Research—an oil and gas advocacy group—applauded.
All this paints a troubling picture of the public interest giving way to that of the oil and gas industry. In short, there does appear to be a federal land grab going on, it’s just not the one Trump and Zinke want you to think it is.