Ryan Zinke invokes Theodore Roosevelt, but forgets some history

Ryan Zinke, the new Secretary of the Interior, made it clear on Monday that it’s open season for energy development on the nation’s public lands, which energy companies have been pushing for more access to in recent years.

Zinke stressed a balance of careful regulation and energy development, and said he wanted to protect the nation’s water and air quality.

“If you’re in oil and gas, the stars have lined up,” Zinke told a packed room of energy professionals during the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston. “But I am going to hold you accountable.”

Zinke was also careful to credit his inspiration for balancing public and private use of the lands, or a  “multi-use” policy, to President Theodore Roosevelt, the founding father of the nation’s public forests, prairies and waters.

At least, that’s how Zinke chose to portray Roosevelt’s influence over his own energy-friendly approach to public lands. Zinke is now the head of the National Park Service, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management  and the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees oil and gas leasing on federal lands.

But Zinke’s invoking of Roosevelt’s passion for public land use doesn’t quite fit with history, said Martin Nie, a professor of natural resources policy at the University of Montana in Missoula. Roosevelt was a progressive, who favored big government control that kept public lands out of the reach of corporate interests.

“I have heard the Secretary invoke Roosevelt since his conservation hearing over and over again,” said Nie. “I just think there are some huge inconsistencies and misunderstandings.”

Roosevelt was the first president to use his executive power to designate wildlife refuges, which are not multiple use lands, said Nie. Roosevelt was also a die-hard conservationist and fought against the corporate overuse of public lands, in particular the greed of the timber industry, which had destroyed many Northeastern and Midwestern forests by the turn of the last century.

As a progressive, Roosevelt believed in a strong federal government, and he was determined that the federal government, not states or local governments, should oversee public lands. That does not appear to be Zinke’s approach, Nie said.

“Secretary Zinke has been pushing such a huge role for state and local governments in the administration of public lands,” he said. “And that’s not a Roosevelt agenda item. He really believed that these public lands were of national significance and needed to managed.”