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Washington, D.C.  The Public Lands Council and National Cattlemen's Beef Association brought members from across the West to their annual Spring Legislative Conference, held the last week of March, and on March 28, Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke told public lands ranchers the he will institute a regime of change at Department of the Interior (DOI).

“I’m extraordinarily excited to be the steward of one-fifth of the territory in the U.S.,” he said. “It is a great honor and an enormous responsibility.”

Trust

Zinke emphasized that he will focus on three priorities, with the first being restoration of trust.

“The farther we get out of D.C., there’s a breach in trust,” he said. “There’s a breach in the expectation of the heavy-handedness of DOI.”

Many people see a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) vehicle and think of law enforcement, rather than land management, he added.

“We have not been good neighbors at DOI, and my goal is to restore trust,” Zinke commented.

Zinke said that traditional land uses, such as hunting and grazing, are under siege.

“The ag industry doesn’t trust us,” he explained. “For example, the process of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has been arbitrary. Rather than having a beginning and an end, it seems like we’re playing football and the goal line keeps getting moved.”

Zinke cited the Theodore Roosevelt Arch at the gate of Yellowstone National Park, which is inscribed with the phrase, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

“We’ve lost that, but we’re going back to it,” Zinke emphasized. “I’m going to spend a lot of time in the field, making sure our folks understand the importance of collaboration, working with communities and being good neighbors and good partners.”

While he is a strong advocate for not transferring or selling public lands, Zinke said that he also believes it is important that DOI do their share in managing lands.

“Teddy Roosevelt outlined multiple use and not single use,” he continued. “We can have coexistence of grazing, mining and recreation, but we have to make sure that we understand the consequences of our actions and preserve and protect the legacy of the land.”

Infrastructure

While building restored trust, Zinke will also work on developing the infrastructure in the parks system across the U.S.

“Most people view DOI as the national park system,” he explained. “Last year, 330 million Americans passed through the gates of our parks, and a lot of our parks are nearing or are beyond capacity.”

At the same time, he noted that the system is about $12.5 billion behind in infrastructure development, with $6 billion in roads. Bridges, such as Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C., and parkways, like the George Washington and Maryland Parkways, also fall under the purview of DOI.

“I think there is a better home for things like roads and bridges,” Zinke explained, noting that the Department of Transportation may be better suited to handle such features. “When I look at the balance sheet at DOI, it’s terrible. Our revenues are not good, so we need to look at where we are spending money and what we get for it.” 

He added, “It’s all out of whack.”

With budgetary shortfall, Zinke also noted that programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund are useful to facilitate public-private partnerships, but he says, “Let’s concentrate on making sure our shoes are shined, rather than getting another pair of shoes. We need to manage the lands that we have and not acquire new ones.”

Reorganization

“Lastly, people may have heard about the reorganization,” Zinke said. “The President has asked all Secretaries to look at the bureaucracy and how we’re going to go forward.”

DOI was last reorganized 100 years ago, and Zinke commented that the agency has changed significantly.

“As a former Navy SEAL commander, we’re too light in the front line, and we’re too heavy in Washington, D.C. and the regions,” he explained. “People who don’t know the difference between the Potomac and the Yellowstone rivers shouldn’t be making rules and regulations that affect the Yellowstone.”

Zinke advocated for bringing authority to the front lines, where on-the-ground managers should be given the authority to make decisions.

“Recently, our federal lands have been micro-managed all over, and no one is happy about it,” he said. “Our reorganization is going to look at micro-management and resources on the front line.”

Also, Zinke hopes to see streamlined decision-making in the agency.

“Stewardship programs are good, but we don’t need six layers of federal management on the same section of land,” Zinke said. “When Fish and Wildlife Service tells land users one thing and BLM says another, that doesn’t mesh. People should be able to talk to someone in our office who can make a decision without going through six different organizations. It’s frustrating.”

Bold actions

Zinke commented, “The President has said, ‘Be bold,’ and we’re going to be bold.”

“Some of our decisions may not be popular, but we want to make sure we’re looking at the future,” he said.

Zinke recognizes that DOI hasn’t operated in a manner that ranchers and public lands users were happy with for many years, and while he can’t change what has happened in the past, he said, “What I can do is, going forward, make sure we have the right resources, right leadership and right partners.”

With issues like sage grouse, land management, wild horses, bison and more facing federal lands in the U.S. Zinke said that he will work to find solutions.

“We’re going to do a pivot at Interior,” Zinke emphasized. “We’re going to restore trust. We understand that we are the stewards of our greatest majesties, but we also understand our land use management should be upheld. We should be advocates for land users, not adversaries.”

He commented, “We need to take a hard look at the work we do for land users.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..