Department of Interior under Zinke is a 'monumental disaster' for the environment

Ryan Zinke was appointed by Donald Trump and confirmed by a Republican Senate Majority to dismantle the Department of the Interior.

The Trump Administration’s transformation of huge, publicly-funded federal agencies—such as the Department of the Interior—into crass looting vehicles for private gas, mining and oil interests has led to a disaster of “monumental” proportions for this country’s environment, according to a new article by former Senior Interior staff member Joel Clement, published in Scientific American.

At the Department of the Interior (DOI), with its mission to conserve and manage America’s natural and cultural resources, the Trump administration’s political appointees are stumbling over one another to earn accolades for disabling agency operations. I should know; I was one of dozens of senior executives targeted by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for reassignment in a staff purge just six months into the new administration.

Zinke’s insidious corruption of Interior’s intended mission and purpose—to preserve what remains of the nation’s natural beauty and intelligently manage its finite resources—is starkly detailed in a report titled  “Science Under Siege at the Department of the Interior,” published this week by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The full report is an exhaustive chronicle of the actions that Trump’s corporate flunkies at Interior, led by Zinke, have taken to intentionally destroy or sell off our natural environment over the past two years. The report shows that the installation of Zinke has already resulted in far-reaching and potentially irreparable harm to our public lands, for the singular purpose of engorging the corporate profits of oil and gas drilling companies and their top executives, who are now afforded an unprecedented opportunity to profit handsomely from the  plundering of our nation’s national resources. As the report describes it, the pillaging that is taking place right now (or is in the works) by these companies—without any input by the public and scant evidence that they will actually serve the public interest—will have far-reaching, long-term health and environmental consequences for all of us.

The report is divided up into four major sections, each detailing a specific pattern of systematic abuse at Interior. These include the suppression of science-based research that traditionally underlies the Department’s activities (such as eliminating studies to determine the health impact of mountaintop coal removal, or to assess the safety of offshore drilling rigs), the silencing and intimidation of thousands agency scientists and staff (of whom Clement is an example), the unchecked and eager sale of public lands to satisfy corporate demands, and the deliberate failure to act on or plan for the effects of climate change on the country’s resources and environment. Clement’s article, highlighting the urgency of the UCS report, is scathing.

It is a damning report and required reading for anyone who values public lands, wildlife, cultural heritage, and health and safety.

It would be impossible to cover everything this clumsy political wrecking crew is up to, but the report provides details on the most prominent actions that deserve greater scrutiny, such as: the largest reduction in public lands protection in our nation’s history; a systematic failure to acknowledge or act on climate change; unprecedented constraints on the funding and communication of science; and a blatant disregard for public health and safety.

The Department’s complete erasure of all considerations of the impact of man-made climate change has been particularly disgraceful. A survey by UCS of 63,000 federal scientists conducted this year yielded approximately 1200 responses from DOI employees. A substantial number of them reported self-censorship, and an atmosphere of intimidation about discussing “climate change” that caused them to deliberately alter their own work out of fear of losing their jobs. They report that politically-motivated reassignments are rampant throughout the department, with Zinke political appointees and cronies transferring people seen as politically “undesirable” to jobs for which they are not qualified or useful, the obvious purpose being to encourage them to quit. This is just one example of the colossal waste of taxpayer resources underway at Interior.

Clement was one of those, reassigned from a position where he had made significant contributions  as one of Interior’s key climate policy advisors, helping Native Alaskans obtain federal assistance for villages whose economic stability and ecosystems are being decimated by coastal erosion due to climate change. Zinke transferred him to accounting job for which he had no qualifications or experience. The purpose was to silence him and encourage him to leave. Instead, he filed a whistleblower complaint and detailed his mistreatment in the Washington Post. In his Scientific American article, he prompts the reader with some pointed, rhetorical questions:

Why is this administration so scared of science? Why cancel a study into the health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining so soon after lifting a moratorium on coal leasing on public lands? Why keep scientists from speaking with the press? Because, while science provides the best evidence we have for making policy decisions that serve the broader public, Ryan Zinke has been very clear that he is in office to serve the oil, gas and mining industries, not the general public.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if the science underlying these actions was permitted to see the light of day, the public would be outraged and many of these the Agency’s “under the radar” actions would be stopped in their tracks. Hence, the suppression of any information that would show just how badly this agency is disregarding the environment for the sake of corporate polluters. Zinke’s complete fealty to the oil and gas industry, and his lack of any interest in the American public’s birthright to these lands were impeccably displayed when he slipped up during a speech in September to the Louisiana Oil and Gas association, telling them “our government should work for you.”

No, actually, it shouldn’t. It should work for the people whose taxes pay Ryan Zinke’s salary and fund the  Department’s 20.7 billion dollar budget.

The deliberate reduction in size of previously designated national monuments, containing the most pristine and unspoiled land in the country, is another example of Zinke’s radical perversion of the agency’s purpose. For example, the gutting of the stunning Bears’ Ears national monument (designated for protection by President Obama in 2016) was, according to the report, ordered “at the behest of mining and drilling companies and their allies, within and outside the Trump administration,and it frees up land they have sought…to reduce restrictions on drilling and mining.”

 Cedar Mesa Citadel cliff dwellings in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah. An archeological dwelling at Bears Ears National Monument, currently targeted for looting by Donald Trump’s Department of the Interior

The report also details rollbacks transparently designed to inflict as much environmental damage on the poor and people of color as possible, and showing blatant hostility towards measures designed to protect Native American populations in particular.

The point that Clement stresses is that these lands do not belong to corporations. They belong to you, and to me, and to our children. They are not toys to be given away at taxpayers’ expense to the highest corporate political bidder. Clement’s sense of outrage is palpable, and he recommends that one of the first actions of the new Democrat-led Congress should be to rein in this agency’s corruption of its intended mission to serve the interests of the American public, not the interests of Donald Trump’s and Ryan Zinke’s political donors.

The UCS also includes a link advising the American public on the most effective ways to advocate for the protection of our public lands and how to demand action to hold Zinke and his corporate allies in the Department accountable for their callous disregard of our environment. 

America’s public lands, and the natural and cultural resources they contain, belong to all of us. It is astounding that a small group of ideologues thinks they can hand these resources, and the agencies that manage them, over to industries eager to carve them up for private profit. To do so with blithe disregard for the impact upon our planet’s operating system is careless and dangerous, and we must demand better.

If you care about preserving our environment, tell your newly elected Democratic congressional rep. to make it a priority to stop these people come January.. They are literally stealing our country from under our feet.

The UCS report is also discussed in ClimateDenierRoundup, here.

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