WHITEFISH, Mont. (CN) — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stood on the same stage Tuesday where he once played trombone in grade school to lay out his 100-year vision for the way the Department of the Interior manages America’s public lands.
Zinke was speaking at the Western Governors’ Association in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana. The conference brought together policy leaders, industry representatives and governors from 10 Western states, including Steve Bullock of Montana, Butch Otter of Idaho, Gary Herbert of Utah, Matt Mead of Wyoming, Brian Sandoval of Nevada, David Ige of Hawaii, Doug Burgum of North Dakota, Dennis Daugaard of South Dakota, John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Ralph Torres of the Northern Mariana Islands. Democratic Governor Bullock, chair of the association, is leading the conference, which lasts through Wednesday.
Zinke, appointed Secretary of the Interior by President Trump, said America’s public lands are mired in endless bureaucracy, making it hard for communities and industry to rely on them for natural resources. It sometimes takes six government organizations to review management of a simple stretch of stream, Zinke said.
“Out West there seems to be a lack of trust in federal government,” Zinke said. “People see the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) as law enforcement rather than land managers. That’s the frustration a lot of people feel. We have to look at new ways to manage our land and restore that trust.”
Zinke took office at the Department of the Interior in March after resigning his U.S. Senate seat. Under presidential order, Zinke is currently reviewing dozens of national monuments to consider if they should be downsized or eliminated.
Zinke said the previous administration’s mismanagement of offshore oil and gas leases resulted in a $16.5-billion loss in revenue — money that could have helped pay for the National Park Service’s $11.5-billion backlog in deferred maintenance. “That is the scale of what occurred,” he said. “There’s a consequence in not using our public land for the creation of wealth.”
And, Zinke said, “There is a social cost of not having a job.”
“Communities in and around those public lands can have a shot at the American dream,” Zinke said, “but I want to make sure the public gets good value from corporate use of public lands. As secretary I am looking at both sides of the balance sheet.”
Zinke said the United States should be a leader in energy development, avoiding other countries’ “catastrophic means” of production.
Arguing that energy development should pave the way to making America energy independent, Zinke suggested it could also be used in international diplomacy. He said supplanting Iran’s or Russia’s – which he initially mistakenly referred to as “the Soviets’” – natural gas needs would bring those countries to the negotiating table.
The Department of the Interior oversees about 247 million acres of land in the United States, managed by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and other federal organizations. While Zinke said he values tradition in the way these organizations are managed, he also claimed that, “We have to figure out a way to be more joint. We’re going to go through a period of reorganization.”
“Ultimately the government works for us and that’s a novel concept,” he added. “Public lands are about America. This is not a divided issue. It should be a united issue.”
In a roundtable discussion involving the governors, industry representatives and environmental groups, the same issues emerged: complicated management of public lands that result in catastrophic wildfires and lost revenue for communities.
Gov. Bullock led the Western Governors’ Association’s effort to create a vision for managing national forest and rangelands in the area. The issue, he said, “is of vexing concern for anyone in the West, and there’s a lot at stake. Where can we as policy leaders go next?”
Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, said solutions to Western land management take patience, dedication and collaboration.
“There’s no question that people want the wildfire threat reduced and rangeland managed,” Tidwell said. “Doing that will help sustain peoples’ communities and improve peoples’ lives.”
Tidwell noted that fighting wildfires consumes more of his agency’s annual budget than ever before, and this has reduced its ability to be proactive in managing Forest Service lands and prevent those fires to begin with.
“We’re behind the eight ball on this,” Tidwell said. “The longer it takes to get out there … we’re just passing this on to the next generation. We know what work needs to be done. We just need to get after it.”
Better forest management would help provide certainty for timber companies like the Idaho Forest Group, Tidwell added. “We have to provide certainty to the industry, so the folks can get those loans and do the work,” he said.
Marc Brinkmeyer of the Idaho Forest Group said that despite improved cooperation among forest industry groups and environmental organizations, “forest health in the West needs our attention.”
Brinkmeyer sees news markets for America’s timber products, pointing out that wood is the new tall-building construction material of the 21st century, replacing concrete and steel. But to take full advantage of that, he said that “the governors’ loud voices [need] to be heard in Washington.”