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What You Need to Know About Trump’s Choice for Department of Interior

By Adam Markham

U.S. natural and cultural resources—the parks, landmarks and history of America—are under assault from climate change. So it is troubling that Ryan Zinke, Donald Trump's pick to run the Department of the Interior (DOI), seems unsure whether climate change is a real problem or not.

Just this week, in an interview with the LA Times Zinke said "The climate is changing, I don't think you can deny that. But climate has always changed" continuing that "I don't think there's any question that man has had an influence" but that "what that influence is, exactly, is still under scrutiny." And in October 2014, Zinke said "It's not a hoax, but it's not proven science either…"

Who is Ryan Zinke?

Zinke is a 23-year Navy Seal veteran and fifth-generation Montanan who was elected to the House in 2014 after serving six years in the state senate. He ran for election on national security and energy independence issues and is an advocate of increased coal, oil and gas development on public lands.

In his first term as a Congressman he has voted to:

  • Weaken controls on air and water pollution in national parks
  • Lift the federal ban on crude oil exports
  • De-fund efforts to clean up Chesapeake Bay
  • Weaken the Antiquities Act by limiting the president's ability to designate new national monuments

In 2015 the League of Conservation Voters gave Zinke a bottom-of-the-barrel 3 percent score for his environmental record. He would have scored zero but for his one positive vote against cutting off funding for the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

The Statue of Liberty was closed to visitors for nine months after Hurricane Sandy. NPS / Earthcam

In 2016 the National Parks Action Fund, a group affiliated with the National Parks Conservation Association, gave Zinke an F for his voting record on key bills affecting national parks. He has, however, been a strong supporter of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and co-sponsored a bill to extend funding for the Historic Preservation Fund.

Congressman Zinke favors opening more public lands to oil and gas drilling, is a strong supporter of Montana's coal industry and has voted against regulations to protect waters in national parks from toxic surface mining run-off. He has drawn the line, however, at the prospect of privatizing public lands, saying selling them off is "a non-starter … in Montana, our public lands are part of our heritage."

In July 2016, he resigned as a delegate to the Republican National Congress over the inclusion of the transfer of federal lands to the states in the party platform. According to a March 2016 profile by Troy Carter in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle

"Zinke sees himself as a traditional conservationist and he's upset about the current state of forest health. Annual forest fires, he believes, are only going to get worse. The answer is for Congress to "put more scientists in the forest and less lawyers … I have a deep admiration for Teddy Roosevelt. I have a deep admiration for the original concept of the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, all of which were signed, by the way, into law by Dick Nixon."

Why is the Department of Interior So Important?

The Department of Interior's primary responsibilities are to protect and manage the U.S.'s natural resources and cultural heritage, provide scientific information about those resources, and uphold the federal government's responsibilities to recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes.

DOI manages 500 million acres of public lands, 700 million acres of subsurface minerals, 35,000 miles of coastline and 29,000 historic structures. DOI agencies include the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.

With 70,000 staff and a huge and diverse portfolio, DOI is the steward of the nation's extraordinary natural, cultural, historic and heritage resources, and nowhere is that more apparent to the American public than in the national parks. The National Park Service is the most popular federal agency after the Postal Service and its more than 400 properties receive more than 300 million visits annually.

National Park Service archaeologists working at an Alaskan site.NPS

To take on the role of Secretary of the Interior is to assume responsibility for the legacies of John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Lady Bird Johnson, and all the other American visionaries that have recognized the sacred trust each generation should have for the next in protecting and managing the U.S.' natural and cultural heritage.

To do this with any kind of success in the 21st century requires that any incoming secretary must support climate change science and monitoring within DOI and advocate its incorporation in management and resilience strategies for public lands, wildlife, cultural resources and historic sites. A recent analysis concluded that sea level rise alone poses a risk to more than $40 billion worth of national park assets and resources.

National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis has called climate change "fundamentally the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced" and current Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said at Glacier National Park in August this year "You cannot get out on these landscapes and deny climate change is there. I see it everywhere I go."

When Glacier National park was established there were 150 glaciers, now there are only 25 and all are expected to gone by or before 2030. A new climate attribution study published in Nature GeoScience concluded that global glacier retreat provides "categorical evidence" of climate change.

Congressman Zinke, whose district includes Glacier National Park also has noticed the changes, but questions the extent of human responsibility.

In May 2015 in Bozeman, Montana, he said, "I think, without question, the climate is changing … You know, if you go up to Glacier (National) Park and you have your lunch on one of the glaciers, you will see the glacier recede as you eat lunch … So you know I have seen the change in my lifetime. I think man has had an influence … the degree to what that influence is .. ?"

Zinke's acknowledgement that the glaciers of Glacier are melting hasn't yet shaken his faith in fossil fuels: "I think you need to be prudent. It doesn't mean I think you need to be destructive on fossil fuels, but I think you need to be prudent and you need to invest in all-the-above energy … I think natural gas probably provides the easiest path forward and the cleanest protection…"

Climate Change and Our National Parks

Under the leadership of Secretary Jewell, her predecessor Secretary Salazar and Director Jarvis, the National Park Service has become one of the most active U.S. agencies in monitoring and communicating about climate impacts as well as putting in place management strategies to respond. Its interdisciplinary Climate Change Response Program is a ground-breaking and highly successful initiative that has gained international attention and plaudits, and which should be continued and expanded under the new administration.

Saguaro National Park is one of many vulnerable to climate change. NPS

In June 2014 Secretary Jewell told USA Today "I would say the science is clear. Whether or not you choose to think about the causes of climate change, all you have to do is open your eyes and look around you to see that climate change is real …So we can no longer pretend it's going to go away. We have to adapt and deal with it."

Secretary Jewell's personal observations from her travels throughout the National Park system are backed up by a large and growing body of scientific literature. A recent study concluded that three-quarters of all national parks are experiencing early spring. As UCS showed in our 2014 report Landmarks At Risk, climate impacts such as intense extreme rainfall events, damaging floods, worsening droughts, thawing permafrost and coastal erosion are affecting national parks throughout the country.

Some of the most convincing evidence of climate impacts of climate change and of the work of National Park Service scientists can be found right in Congressman Zinke's backyard—Yellowstone National Park. Average annual temperatures have risen 0.17 C per decade since 1948 and spring and summer temperatures are predicted to rise by 4.0-5.6 C by the end of the century, making hot dry summers the norm and transforming the ecosystems this iconic landscape.

Across the American west, climate change is driving a trend toward larger, more damaging wildfires and fire season has lengthened by an extraordinary 78 days since 1970.

Yellowstone winters are already shorter, with less snowfall and many more days when temperatures rise above freezing than there were in the 1980s. Earlier snow melt and warmer summer temperatures are dramatically changing stream flow, river temperatures, and the condition of seasonal wetlands in the park, putting populations of native cutthroat trout, chorus frogs, and trumpeter swans at risk for the future.

Whitebark pines in Yellowstone National Park are threatened by warming temperatures, shorter winters and mountain pine beetle infestations.Adam Markham

Damaging climate impacts to wildlife and ecosystems have been recorded in Saguaro, Rocky Mountain, Glacier Bay, Biscayne and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks as well as Yosemite, the Everglades and many others.

Cultural resources are no less at risk. As the Union of Concerned Scientists's 2016 joint report with UNESCO and UNEP, World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate documented, The Statue of Liberty was closed for nine months after Hurricane Sandy and $77 million has had to be spent to restore services and access on Liberty and Ellis Islands.

Extreme rainfall has damaged the Spanish mission church at Tumacácori in Arizona; sea level rise threatens black history at Fort Monroe in Virginia and the Harriett Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland; colonial heritage is at immediate risk from rising water levels at Jamestown, Virginia; American Indian heritage has been damaged by floods and fires at Mesa Verde and Bandelier; and Native Alaskan archaeology thousands of years old is being lost forever as a result of coastal erosion at Cape Krusenstern and elsewhere in Alaska.

Unlike natural ecosystems which have the capacity to change or move, cultural heritage such as buildings, artifacts or archaeology can be permanently damaged or instantly destroyed by a fire, flood or storm.

In a 2014 policy memorandum to all the National Park Service staff, Jon Jarvis noted that "Climate change poses an especially acute problem for managing cultural resources because they are unique and irreplaceable—once lost, they are lost forever. If moved or altered, they lose aspects of their significance and meaning." Aside from thousands of historic structures and sites, there are approximately 2 million archaeological sites within the National Park System alone, many of which are vulnerable to climate change.

Moreover, responsibility for managing the National Register of Historic Places—well over 1.5 million buildings, structures and historic sites—also lies with the National Park Service. Hundreds of sites or historic districts on the register have already been identified as severely vulnerable to climate impacts, including, for example:

  • San Francisco's Embarcadero
  • Boston's Faneuil Hall
  • The historic districts of Annapolis, Maryland and Charleston, South Carolina
  • NASA's Kennedy Space Center
  • Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois

The Role of Climate Science in the Department of Interior

As incoming secretary, Congressman Zinke will inherit a department steeped in climate science and well organized and equipped to deploy it in the service of managing the nation's natural and cultural heritage for future generations. It will be vital that he listens to the scientists and resource managers on his staff.

Mies Van Der Rohe's Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, is one of hundreds of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places at risk from climate impacts.Victor Grigas

DOI plays a vital role in delivering policy-relevant climate science, monitoring climate impacts, and adapting management strategies in the light of the latest scientific findings. The department's 2014-2018 strategic plan states that:

"Impacts observed by Federal resource managers include drought, severe flooding, interrupted pollination of crops, changes in wildlife and prey behavior, warmer rivers and streams, and sea level rise. The DOI will bring the best science to bear to understand these consequences and will undertake mitigation, adaptation, and enhancements to support natural resilience and will take steps to reduce carbon pollution, including through the responsible development of clean energy. The DOI will be a national leader in integrating preparedness and resilience efforts into its mission areas, goals, strategies, and programs; identifying vulnerabilities and systematically addressing these vulnerabilities; and incorporating climate change strategies into management plans, policies, programs, and operations."

DOI operates eight regional Climate Science Centers that synthesize climate impacts data and make it useful and relevant for resource managers and the general public. It has also established a network of 22 Landscape Conservation Cooperatives which bring federal and state agencies together with non-governmental organizations, tribal entities, and academic institutions to manage natural and cultural landscapes across jurisdictional boundaries, with a strong emphasis on integrating climate management.

Playing Roulette with Ryan Zinke?

Zinke will become the nation's top steward of our natural and cultural heritage. It would be the height of folly to take this on without fully acknowledging the damage climate change is causing our public lands and historic sites, or the predominant role of fossil fuels in causing climate change.

And it would be nothing short of catastrophic to roll back the leadership steps that the National Park Service and other DOI agencies have taken to develop and communicate science-based management strategies to make public lands and cultural resources more resilient.

In 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt said:

"There is nothing so American as our national parks. The fundamental idea behind the parks … is that the country belongs to the people, [and parks make] for the enrichment of the lives of all of us."

Congressman Zinke has the opportunity to further this vision in the service of us all, but to do so he must acknowledge the role of climate change and most of all, listen to the hundreds of dedicated scientists on the staff of the Department of Interior.

In the past, Zinke has likened energy policy in a potentially changing climate to Russian roulette:

"If we're playing Russian roulette … you have a one in six chance of that chamber being loaded with a bullet and you spin it, and you've got to put it to your head, and squeeze the trigger. So even if there's a one in six chance … even if it's a chance of global warming and it's a catastrophe, then I think you need to be prudent."

The scientists whose work he will be overseeing at DOI can tell him, however, that there's more than just one bullet in the gun. Maybe it's already fully loaded.

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