BLM Deputy: Zinke monuments memo was not fact-checked

BLM Acting Deputy Director John Ruhs testifies on fact-checking in Interior and, presumably, the mines of Moria

On Twitter this morning, Sen. Mark Heinrich (D-NM) alleged that there were “basic factual errors” in the recommendation on national monuments that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke submitted to President Trump last month, including the claim that monument designation had reduced hunting access in New Mexico. According to local BLM staff, hunting access has improved under monument designation. Noting that these facts appear to contradict Zinke’s report, Heinrich asks John Ruhs, the Acting Deputy Director of the Bureau of Land Managment, whether the secretary’s office consulted local BLM officials before drafting its report. In this video, Ruhs said the secretary’s office did not consult local BLM officials. Neither did it ask the BLM to fact-check Zinke’s memo.

That memo was previously kept secret, but it leaked this weekend. In it, Zinke recommends shrinking 10 national monuments designated under the Antiquities Act by previous presidents, mostly Barack Obama. He also makes several assertions that Outside magazine describes as “lies.” To be fair, some of what Outside criticizes are not claims of fact. But taken altogether, Zinke’s memo suggests that he formed his plan to reduce national monuments first and went looking for evidence second.

Back in May, Energy & Environment News reported that Interior had suspended meetings with Resource Advisory Councils, the local groups that have advised on federal land management decisions since 1996. Zinke did, however, consult a different group of stakeholders: oil companies. According to personal schedules obtained by the Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act, during the first two months after he was confirmed, Secretary Zinke held “more than a half-dozen meetings with executives from nearly two dozen oil and gas firms…including BP America, Chevron and ExxonMobil.” He also met with Bakken oil magnate and 39th-richest American John Hamm, who is head of the American Petroleum Institute.

Such meetings account for one of the most technically true claims in Zinke’s report to president Trump, that public comments on the issue of shrinking national momuments “can be divided into two principal groups.” That is correct only in the sense that 99.2% of public comments received by the Department of the Interior wanted the monuments to stay at their current size. The other 0.8% felt differently. But this dividing of the more-than-99-percent and the less-than-one-percent into “two principal groups” was not a deliberate attempt to mislead the president. Zinke must have believed that 0.8% was significant, because he sided with them.

Taken together, these behaviors suggest that the secretary had a conclusion in mind when he set out to gather information about national monuments. That conclusion coincided with the wishes of resource extraction companies and contradicted the preference of the general public. Despite Zinke’s statements about consulting “stakeholders,” he took active steps to stop hearing from local groups invested in land management decisions. He didn’t even bother to ask BLM if what he was telling the president was true. These behaviors suggest one of two scenarios:

  1. Interior Secretary Zinke is bad at his job, or
  2. Interior Secretary Zinke knew what the president would want to hear and told him that.

So is he a yes-man or an incompetent? Neither possibility comports with the image Commander Zinke has projected throughout his political career. Neither do the recommendations in his memo square with his professed commitment to preserving public lands. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for why Zinke proceeded according to the principle of Just Sayin’ Stuff in order to produce a factually inaccurate memo to the president, and why his actions during the first six months of his tenure as an appointed official in the executive branch have diverged so sharply from the values he professed as an elected legislator from Montana. I would like to hear them. I suspect we all would.

Ryan Zinke’s shrinking commitment to public lands

Sec. of the Interior and former MT Rep. Ryan Zinke simply cannot take a bad picture.

A big part of living in Montana is being the most Montana person you can be. This principle is especially important in politics, where conventional wisdom holds that voters will select the most authentic Montanan on the ballot—as measured in hunting, fishing, shooting, fencing mending, suspiciously mint condition Carhartt-wearing, et cetera. At one point during the special election this spring, both candidates for US House were running ads where they shot TVs. One was a musician and the other a tech entrepreneur, but no matter—once the election came around, they were rooting, tooting ranch hands.

But nobody does Montana Values better than the man they were vying to replace, Ryan Zinke. The secretary of the interior and erstwhile representative from Montana is a former Navy SEAL. He played college football. He grew up in Whitefish, the Santa Barbara of Montana, and was rumored to live in the Santa Barbara of California, but he made up for it by wearing a giant cowboy hat. In the statewide costume pageant that is Montana politics—at least as various local consultants perceive it—Zinke is a past master. Since he joined the executive branch, however, his game has fallen off.

Besides appearing next to a fencing with perfectly clean and unlined rawhide gloves, the one issue Montanans agree on more than any other is public lands. Polls put voters’ support for stream access, federal stewardship, and other land-use issues as high as 90 percent. Commander Zinke was a staunch defender of public lands when he was beholden to those voters, going so far as to resign his position as a delegate to the Republican National Convention over the plank in his party’s platform that called for transfer of federal lands to the states.

Now, though, Zinke is in an appointed position, and nothing short of a new president can push him out. Coincidentally, his position on public lands has evolved. Last week, he submitted a plan to President Trump to reduce the size of several national monuments, including Bears Ears in Utah. The details of this plan are secret; Zinke neither made his plan public nor answered questions about it put to him by the Associated Press. He prefers to do the public’s business the Montana way: in private. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Montana Independent, in which I praise Secretary Commander Zinke for upholding his Montana values. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

Representative Commander Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, a career

Ryan Zinke accidentally wanders in front of a flag while wearing a cowboy hat.

Montana sends only one delegate to the United States House of Representatives, and for the last two years it was Republican and former Navy SEAL Commander Ryan Zinke. Zinke won re-election in November, but he vacated his seat last week after the Senate confirmed him as President Trump’s Secretary of the Interior. Until we pick a new one via special election in May, Montana will go without representation in the House. This situation turns out to be not so different from the one we enjoyed already.

Zinke ends his career as a congressman having sponsored no bills that actually became law. That’s not so unusual for a freshman representative. What set him apart was his flair for the dramatic—his ability to present a wild caricature of Montana values while, again, not actually expressing those values in the form of legislation. But who cares about influencing the US government when your representative used to be a Navy SEAL? Sure, he missed 80 of 99 House votes after he was nominated for Interior. But he also gave us this photograph:

God, I’m going to miss that. Remember when he said President Obama shouldn’t have attended the Paris Climate Summit because it did nothing to stop ISIS? And then a few weeks later opposed background checks at gun shows, also because it wouldn’t stop ISIS? Communications from his office consistently referred to him as Commander Zinke instead of Representative Zinke—part of a relentless branding strategy that even extended to his duties as a rep. He co-sponsored the Draft American Daughters Act, a satirical bill to register women for the draft that expressed his opposition to letting them take combat specializations. This bill also did not pass. Again, nothing Commander Zinke proposed to the House ever passed. But what fun we had!

Now he runs the Department of the Interior, a position that will make his gung-ho performance art more difficult. It’s hard to connect the Interior to foreign terrorism. I believe Commander Zinke can keep making politics more like pro wrestling, though. It was a heartening sign when he rode a horse to his first day of work last week. Seriously—you can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. Montana has not lost much of a legislator, but we must bid farewell to one hell of a showman. I can’t say I agreed with his politics too often. But I love a character, and Commander Zinke has certainly been that. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!

Eugene Graf IV, less humorous candidates vie for Zinke’s seat

Congressional candidate and caricature of a rich grandson Eugene Graf IV

Since Donald Trump announced his plan to appoint as Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Montana’s sole representative in the US House, no fewer than six Republicans have threatened to campaign for his seat. Six! One of them is Eugene Graf IV, the scion of a Bozeman real estate fortune pictured above. Graf: He doesn’t remember shoving you into anything. As much as I would like to see Montana politics return to old-school corporatocracy, Graf is a long shot. He has not previously run for elected office, and his work experience is limited to working for his family business and, as past president of the Montana Homebuilders Association, lobbying for his family business. Yet he is sure to meet one qualification for office: the $1,740 fee the Montana Republican Party is charging each candidate to run.

That fee—set by state law at 1% of the salary of the office sought—is designed to defray the cost of organizing statewide primaries. It seems a little odd to charge it for candidates in this special election, where a nominee will be chosen not by primaries but by members of the state Republican committee. The food at that meeting is going to be great, I guess. Assuming he ponies up, the most likely nominee seems to be Ed Buttrey, a moderate Republican credited with orchestrating the compromise that allowed Montana to accept federal Medicaid funds last session. Among conservatives, of course, that’s a debit. But they have yet to put up a candidate of their own who can plausibly threaten him. This makes Buttrey’s run a barometer in the ongoing conflict between moderates and the right wing in Montana’s GOP. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent.

Why read about the recent past, though, when you can focus on the future? This week marks the Indy’s annual Bold Predictions issue, in which various people including me speculate on what 2017 will bring in Missoula, Montana, and the world. My first two bold predictions, made in 2013 and 2014, crushed it: Missoula really did set out to buy the water works in 2014, and conservatives in the legislature really did overplay their hand in 2015. Last year’s prediction—that Uber would put at least one of Missoula’s two taxi companies out of business—has yet to come true. But there’s still time! Keep watching this space or even some more reliable news outlet for updates on my prediction for 2017, which is that Republicans will become staunch defenders of Medicaid until they can blame someone else for taking it away. I also predict we’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links.

Who will replace Ryan Zinke?

Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) visits a Special Forces parade in Helena.

Last week, increasingly real thing that happened Donald Trump tapped Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) to be his Secretary of the Interior. Assuming the Senate confirms him when it reconvenes in January, Montana will need to select a new representative to the US House. But whom? State law calls for a special election within 85 to 100 days of the seat being vacated. It also authorizes the governor to appoint an interim representative, but Montana Republican Party Chairman Jeff Essman said that was probably unconstitutional. Even though her party holds the governorship and the law is on her side side, Democratic Executive Director Nancy Keenana agreed with him. They’re not even going to make the Republicans file some kind of lawsuit. There will be no interim rep, as state Democrats have decided to give up a seat in Congress in the interest of…comity, I guess. I’m sure Republicans will repay the favor later.

It’s razor-sharp political instincts like these that have led some Democrats to suggest Denise Juneau as their candidate in the special election. I like Juneau, but she did lose a statewide campaign for the same office six weeks ago. Is there no one else? In this week’s column for the Missoula Independent, we examine the field—including Richard Spencer, who persists despite increasingly widespread allegations that his father is a broken tube of a chicken semen. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!