Teddy Roosevelt was once a Republican, too. What do you think he'd have to say to Ryan Zinke today?
Teddy Roosevelt was once a Republican, too. What do you think he'd have to say to Ryan Zinke today? (Photo: © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS)
Indefinitely Wild

How Ryan Zinke Really Stacks Up to Teddy Roosevelt

American cowboy or posturing Trump enforcer?

Theodore Roosevelt is shown riding a moose.  Collaged photograph, undated. --- Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS

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“I’m a Teddy Roosevelt guy!” Ryan Zinke stated when he announced his review of our national monuments. Is he really? Let’s look at how the Interior Secretary’s carefully cultivated image stacks up to reality.

Teddy’s Greatest Legacy

In 1906, Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law. It gives presidents the authority to further protect tracts of federal land by declaring them national monuments. Beginning with Devil’s Tower in Wyoming later that year, Roosevelt would go on to designate 18 monuments by 1909.

The act was intended to give the President a streamlined ability to protect historically, culturally, and naturally significant federal lands that were under immediate risk of destruction. Particular emphasis was given to protecting historically significant Native American sites and artifacts, after a spate of high-profile thefts and vandalism across the Southwest in the years leading up to the act.

In response to “dozens of serious looting cases” of Native American artifacts, and after being petitioned to do so by representatives of the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe peoples, President Obama proclaimed a 1.3-million acre tract of federal land in Utah the Bear’s Ears National Monument, bestowing on it more protection, yet retaining historical uses like hunting and off-roading.

The monument designation prompted an immediate backlash from Republican lawmakers, like Utah Representative Rob Bishopwho hoped to promote fossil fuel extraction in the area. Now, Ryan Zinke is leading an unprecedented assault on our nation’s public lands—he's especially focused on Bears Ears and dismantling the Antiquities Act. Last month, Zinke recommended significantly shrinking the size of Bears Ears National Monument, something The New York Times says is, “a legally unprecedented move that opponents say violated a century old law signed by President Theodore Roosevelt.”

Roosevelt was no stranger to fighting exploitation interests in Congress in order to designate national monuments: when congressmen stood in the way of efforts to turn the Grand Canyon into a national park, Roosevelt circumvented them and declared the land a national monument instead.

In short, Zinke is actively involved in the effort to destroy Roosevelt’s national monument legacy, again in the name of corporate profit and at the expense of the people.


When it came to nature, Roosevelt was a forward thinker.

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources,” he wrote. “But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

During his time in office, Roosevelt would go on to protect 230 million acres of land for the American public. He created the U.S. Forest Service and gave us 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves (later wildlife refuges), four national game preserves, five national parks, and 18 national monuments.

The ideology Roosevelt installed in our country is called “conservation,” and it’s particularly relevant to this conversation. So let’s define it: Conservation is the managed use of resources. That’s in contrast to preservation, which simply protects resources without any use. Or any profit—Roosevelt’s great contribution to nature was to realize that it must have a value in order to be valued by us. 

So Roosevelt created a system designed to conserve the land for future generations, while also managing it for multiple uses, including mining, timber, and energy extraction. By giving the land a value, while also dictating that the value had to be derived without harming the land for the enjoyment of future generations, Roosevelt created the system that’s protected our public lands for over 100 years.

“I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us,” he famously said. 

How much money does the Department of the Interior currently contribute to the American economy from the careful use of our natural resources? Over $25 billion in consumer spending, $220 billion in energy production, and $60 billion in water storage and delivery. Its lands directly support 1.7 million jobs. And that’s before you get to the outdoor recreation industry, which relies on public lands for its $887 billion in consumer spending and 7.6 million American jobs. Thanks, Teddy.

Then we get to Zinke. “Energy development on American Public lands is a key part of the economy,” he told Congress during his confirmation hearing. And that’s true, as illustrated above. But it’s his willingness—or lack thereof—to maintain a careful balance between profit and protection that causes concern.

Zinke has staffed his Interior Department with many hires from the oil and gas industryHis deputy is a former oil lobbyist. And last month, that staff began to work to reduce the protections offered to our public lands, even while Zinke conducted a public tour of national parks and monuments. They filed a legal proposal to rescind safety regulations on fracking. The DOI is looking at loosening safety rules put in place after the Deepwater Horizon spill. Obama’s order to block coal mining on public lands has been rescinded. Enforcement of a methane emissions regulation for oil and gas wells has been delayed. Zinke is looking at combining the office that collects oil and gas revenue, with the office that regulates that industry’s safety and environmental regulationsZinke is firing people for believing in the science of climate change.

“No one loves the sage grouse more than I do,” is a typical quote from Zinke. Yet his agency has decided to review the animal’s protections from oil and gas drilling on its habitat.

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

The first cited time Roosevelt used this phrase was in a 1900 private letter, but it later became both a catchphrase in his public speeches and the central ideology of his approach to conflict resolution both at home and abroad.

Prior to Roosevelt’s Presidency, labor strikes were sometimes resolved by military means. One of the earliest tests of his mettle came in 1902, when 140,000 coal miners went on strike. Roosevelt was able to bring both sides to the negotiating table, achieving both higher pay and shorter working hours for the miners, and a higher price for the coal being sold by the mine owners. Both sides came to the negotiating table due to the implicit threat of military action, but both also left happy with the outcome. 

In contrast, Zinke took almost the opposite approach when enlisted by President Trump to help influence Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski’s vote in last week’s attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, making big threats with little ability to follow through on them. Reportedly, he threatened to delay or cancel energy development programs that would benefit the Alaskan economy if Murkowski didn’t vote for the repeal. It was immediately noted in the press that Murkowski, as chair of both the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on the Interior, “is the top authorizer and the top appropriator for the Department of the Interior.”

Zinke can’t spend money without Murkowski’s approval. He’s speaking loudly and carrying no stick at all.

Of the People, By the People, and for the People

During his time in office, Roosevelt worked to create, “equality of opportunity, and of reward for equally good service.” Basically, he wanted to level the playing field between corporations and the American people, and create a system that worked for the people’s benefit, without unduly limiting a company’s ability to make money. He dubbed his approach to domestic policy the Square Deal

This was a wide-reaching program that resulted in many different pieces of legislation, but most fell into what Roosevelt dubbed the “three Cs”: conservation of natural resources, control of corporations, and consumer protection. The ambition and results of the program were incredibly far reaching, continue to this day, and are impossible to sum up briefly here.

As Secretary of the Interior, Zinke is calling for a review of polices that “burden” energy extraction industries in their efforts to drill for oil and gas in national parks. This seems to be in clear contrast to both the Park Service’s mission to leave parks “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” and to Roosevelt’s idea that public good should come before corporate profit.

“Zinke has been a disappointment,” states Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.