Montana Voices: When will Zinke become a “Roosevelt” conservationist?

Mike Penfold

President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.” Reviewing President Trump’s recently released budget proposal, it inspired a slightly revamped version of Eisenhower’s famous quote. “Making budget cuts to public lands looks mighty easy when you don’t care about the consequences.”

As the President and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke look to trim the fat in the bureaucracy they have arrived at a proposed budget that quite simply will hurt jobs and livelihoods in Montana reliant on public lands.  Communities throughout Montana depend on our public lands to fuel our outdoor recreation industry, tourism, livestock grazing, timber and small businesses. Montana was recently ranked number one in the nation for entrepreneurship by the Kauffman Foundation. Whether you ranch, cut timber for a living or work in the tech industry, our public lands inspire and support Montana’s can-do entrepreneurial spirit.

Our hope, as Montanans, was that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who grew up just outside Glacier National Park, would act as a backstop against any unwise top-down land management decisions that would hurt our communities and way of life. That hope is dimming as it appears Zinke has gone to Washington and forgotten not only where he came from but what he promised during the confirmation hearing for his new job. Today, we see Secretary Zinke wholeheartedly supporting budget cuts that just a few months ago he agreed were troubling. Now he tells his House Colleagues “this is what a balanced budget looks like.”

The most egregious is the flip flop on the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). A few months ago, Mr. Zinke testified in Congress that he would pledge to be a champion for this important program that pays for fishing access sites across Montana, opens up inaccessible public lands for hunters, and helps pay for trails and playgrounds.  Now that he got the job he has changed his tune and is defending the President’s budget that calls for an 84 percent cut to this crucial public lands access program.

It does not stop there. Sec. Zinke has also doubled down on a $360 million cut to our National Parks and a 20% cut to the United States Department of Agriculture.  As a former State Director of the BLM in Montana and Alaska, I can tell you that our public lands agencies are already stressed to the breaking point and the current budget proposal would be completely unworkable from a management perspective.

This proposed budget would have very real implications including reduced recreational opportunities for Montanans and less jobs in forest management. For instance, included in these cuts is the largest ever proposed reduction in the Bureau of Land Management’s recreation management program, an eighty-four percent reduction in the Forest Service’s trails maintenance fund, and the complete zeroing out of a collaborative forest program that has created hundreds of timber jobs in western Montana and made our forests more resilient to wildfires. The longstanding practice of “fire borrowing” will continue in which the U.S Forest Service cannibalizes money for other programs, including those designed to improve forest health and prevent wildfires, to fight wildfires.

Secretary Ryan Zinke testified before the U.S. Senate that he considered himself to be a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist. It is difficult to imagine Teddy Roosevelt supporting a budget plan that would make it harder to fight forest fires, slashes funding that keeps our National Parks Open, and harms recreational access on public lands.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke may have moved 2,000 miles from Montana, but we are all still here and still watching, incredulously. We will keep watching and waiting to see the Teddy Roosevelt conservationist we were promised would take over the helm of the Department of Interior. We hope it wasn’t all talk.

Mike Penfold is a retired state director for the BLM and former U.S. Forest Service supervisor