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How Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's Views Have Changed Under Trump


Ryan Zinke hasn't done much to make environmentalists happy since he became secretary of the interior. Most recently, he recommended that President Trump shrink two national monuments in Utah - Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Trump did that last month, and his decision is now being challenged in court.


But Zinke used to be known as a maverick who occasionally broke with his party and stood up for conservation. This was back when he was in the Montana State Senate and later in the U.S. Congress. He called himself a Teddy Roosevelt Republican.

Outside Magazine's Elliott Woods follows Zinke's political arc in a new story, and Woods says it starts in Zinke's hometown, Whitefish, Mont.

ELLIOTT WOODS: It was a working-class town filled with people who worked in the rail industry and in the timber industry. And so I think that really informs his identity. I think he grew up around people who worked hard and didn't expect much out of life that they didn't work hard for.

And over the years, he has taken that identity, and he's added other components to it which aren't necessarily so Whitefish. For example, he right now has a picture of himself fly fishing as the banner image on his secretary of the interior home page. He likes to be photographed riding horses and wearing cowboy hats. So he has taken the Montana brand and built this image out of it. And I think that's really interesting.

MCEVERS: So first he's in state politics in Montana. Then he goes to Congress. And at the time, he was thought to be a conservationist Republican, right? I mean, this is the guy who drove a Prius, you write. How does that play in Montana?

WOODS: Montanans I think are maybe more than most people in the country still looking for authenticity in their elected officials. And so when Ryan Zinke ran as a conservation-minded Republican for the state Senate in 2008, that was looked upon very favorably.

MCEVERS: What were his positions on the environment and conservation?

WOODS: Well, so for example, when he was a state senator, he got together with another state elected official. And together they arranged for the joint chiefs of staff to come to Helena, our capital, to talk about how climate change poses a threat to national security. He was somebody who clearly at that time believed that climate change was real and that it was something that we should be taking seriously.

He was also somebody who spoke up for public lands. He resigned from the Republican National Convention as a delegate over the adoption of a plank in the strategy that called for the sale or transfer of public land. People respected that, and it really bought him a lot of credibility with people who lean independent or moderate and even people who are on the farther left side.

MCEVERS: So when he was nominated, then, to be secretary of interior, what did these conservationists think? Some people must have been pretty supportive of that move, right?

WOODS: Yeah. I think a lot of people were really optimistic about it. Conservation organizations were vocally supportive of the nomination, and it's difficult to know whether they were supportive of it because they wanted to maintain influence with him once he got that job or whether they were supportive of it because they knew from their sources who the other potential candidates were.

MCEVERS: Right, right.

WOODS: And I think it's probably some combination of all of the above. You know, I hear people saying things like, I always saw through the facade; I always knew that this was who he was. But I also hear people saying, I'm really, really disappointed, and I feel betrayed. So there's a mix of all of it.

MCEVERS: So Zinke takes over the Department of the Interior. What have his positions been since taking that job?

WOODS: So the very first things that Ryan Zinke did when he got into the position of secretary of interior is issues secretarial orders to eliminate the recent ban on lead ammunition in wildlife refuges designed to protect birds that eat carrion. And that was seen as a clear nod to the hunting community but also to the ammunition manufacturing industry.

And then there was the order to eliminate burdensome regulations to industry on public land and to accelerate the permitting process and, first and foremost, the monuments review. And that probably more than anything was seen as a slap in the face to the conservation community.

MCEVERS: So this idea that he is a conservationist Republican, that he's a Teddy Roosevelt Republican isn't necessarily true is what you're saying.

WOODS: My opinion is, no, it's not true. My opinion is that Ryan Zinke's knowledge of who Teddy Roosevelt was and of the ethos that Teddy Roosevelt brought to public land management, to giving power back to everyday people, to taking power from the captains of industry - that Ryan Zinke doesn't know or understand that history very well and that he wears the mantle of Teddy Roosevelt for political gain.

MCEVERS: Elliott Woods is a correspondent at Outside Magazine. Thank you so much.

WOODS: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.