On Saturday morning, President Trump announced via Twitter the resignation of his Department of the Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke.
Zinke has been plagued by scandals practically since the day Trump appointed him to oversee this country's 500 million acres of public land. For the full list of investigations into his business dealings and conduct, check out our tracker: the list includes possibly trying to fire the DOI's Inspector General and questionable uses of taxpayer money.
According to the Washington Post, the probe that finally convinced the White House that Zinke had to go concerned a shady real estate deal in the Secretary's home state of Montana. It's a complicated investigation that was referred to the Justice Department in October. Here's how we described the situation earlier this year:
Zinke may have violated conflict-of-interest laws when a foundation under his name worked on a real estate deal with Halliburton chairperson David Lesar. The Interior Department’s internal watchdog opened an investigation—the 11th to date during Zinke’s 16 months at his post—because the secretary stood to personally profit from the deal. Halliburton is one of the largest oil drilling and fracking companies in the world, with projects highly affected by DOI policies. The short version is that Zinke met with Halliburton executives at DOI headquarters in August, and they discussed the Interior Secretary’s Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation, which is trying to build a park in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana. A month later, Zinke’s wife signed an agreement allowing a developer connected to Lesar to build a parking lot on land the foundation owns. Lesar is also backing commercial development in Whitefish, including retail shops, a hotel, and microbrewery, that would be set aside for Zinke and his wife. Plus, with all the development nearby, the land Zinke owns would greatly increase in value.
Many conservationists are happy to see Zinke go. “Ryan Zinke will go down as the most anti-conservation Interior secretary in our nation’s history,” Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, told the Washington Post. “Surrounding himself with former lobbyists, it quickly became clear that Ryan Zinke was a pawn for the oil and gas industry. We can expect more of the same from Acting Secretary David Bernhardt, but without the laughable Teddy Roosevelt comparisons.” (If you want to read more about how Zinke really stacks up to Roosevelt, read our writer Wes Siler's opinion.)
Zinke oversaw a number of initiatives that enraged both environmentalists and outdoor industry representatives during his time in office. Under Trump's orders, he led the charge to shrink a number of national monuments. He launched a Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee, then filled it with businesses and other interests that advocated for increasing park privatization. He wooed energy extractors to public lands. As Elliott Woods wrote in the Outside profile of Zinke:
It could be said that the Zinke doctrine is not multiple use but maximum use. In pursuit of President Trump’s energy agenda, he’s pledged to throw open the gates to development on public lands on a scale that has not been seen for decades, if ever. Interior also oversees offshore leasing. In October, Zinke announced the largest lease sale in U.S. history, involving nearly 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico, including areas where a moratorium has been in place since the Deepwater Horizon spill.
All that said, conservationists aren't exactly rejoicing at the resignation. Zinke stands to be replaced by his former deputy, David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist who will take over the DOI immediately as acting director. (Trump is said to be vetting a number of Republican candidates for the top job.) Last month, Siler spoke to a Democratic Congressional staffer about Bernhardt. The source "described Zinke’s corruption as 'penny grifting,' but warned that Bernhardt could be a 'puppet master.'"
"If Zinke is a swamp monster, then Bernhardt is the bigger, meaner swamp monster who shows up just when the heroes of this bad movie thought they’d won," Siler wrote.
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