Irony in Big Piney: On Karen Budd-Falen and the Wind River Glaciers

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s new pick for the department’s Deputy Solicitor for Fish, Wildlife and Parks is Karen Budd-Falen, a Wyoming-based property rights attorney known for challenging federal land policy. GlacierHub provides an ecological perspective on the glaciers, rivers and lakes of Budd-Falen’s home community in Big Piney, Wyoming.

Budd-Falen and the Wind River Glaciers

In remote Wyoming, the Wind River glaciers span 10,000 acres and contain over 100 different glaciers proliferated throughout the great continental divide, according to a recent study by Portland State University. The western slope glaciers, with names like Minor, Mammoth, Sourdough, Grasshopper and even Sacagawea, form the headwaters of Wyoming’s largest river, the nearly 4,000 square mile Green River BasinDownstream, the Green River meanders through the wilderness, flowing between public and private lands as it makes its way to the Utah border.

The Green River where it meets the Seedskadee National Wildlife Rescue (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Private, working ranches benefit from this glacial surplus in the Wind River Range. One ranch in particular, located in Big Piney, Wyoming, has been held by the same family for five generations. Budd-Falen calls this ranch home.

If you haven’t heard of Karen Budd-Falen, you’ve probably heard of her most notorious client, Cliven Bundy, the Nevada cattle rancher at the forefront of the 2014 armed standoff with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management over cattle grazing rights on federal land. Budd-Falen has repeatedly argued against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in court, and in favor of ranchers, landowners and corporations garnering unfettered rights for the private use of public lands.

Budd-Falen has also attempted to sue individual BLM employees under RICO for upholding federal law.

Bears Ears National Monument was reduced 85% by President Donald Trump on December 4, 2017 (Source: Creative Commons).

In her new DOI position, beginning 1 November, she will be an integral part of the DOI’s policy-making, working with the Justice Department to defend federal policy while providing counsel regarding legal issues surrounding government positions on public parks and wildlife policy.

Policy analysts are concerned she’ll endorse regulations undermining the Endangered Species Act, shrinking national monuments, and opening up more federal lands to oil, gas and mining industries.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Michael Burger, executive director for the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, commented there is nothing surprising about Budd-Falen’s appointment. It is “perfectly in line with what Trump has been doing with regards to appointments surrounding the environment. Choosing people who stand for the opposite of what the agencies missions are,” he said. Burger added that the appointment of Budd-Falen makes it clear that “Zinke is seeking to conduct a fire sale on the nation’s mineral rights to public lands.”

Irony in Big Piney

Glacier National Park in Montana (Source: Creative Commons).

Recently, Budd-Falen was hired to represent the Stillwater county commissioners in the Beartooth Front lawsuit, arguing against Montana landowners and their desire for citizen-initiated zoning. Citizen-initiated zoning is a process where landowners guide the development of their own land-use plans. In this case, it’s about the Montana landowners wish to guide the mineral rights on their own properties. However, now Budd-Falen represents the government’s desire for control over mineral rights.

Herein lies the dichotomy of Karen Budd-Falen. Above ground, her track record shows she solidly supports unrestricted private land use, especially for landowners, so they may go about their businesses without federal rules or intervention. Below ground, she works for the mineral rights owners, disallowing surface owners’ local input and opening these areas to the oil and gas industries.

Ironically, opening up Beartooth Front to oil, gas and mineral drilling and exploration may deposit dust or other particles on the surface of nearby glaciers in the Absaroka range. Should this drilling and exploration extend only a few hundred miles eastward, the debris have the potential to land on the same glaciers that feed the Green River Basin in Wyoming, and subsequently Budd-Falen’s own ranch in Big Piney.

Field studies have shown that a thin debris layer causes glaciers to melt faster, bad news for the Wind River Range of glaciers in Wyoming, which have already retreated nearly 40 percent since 1966.

Budd-Falen’s views and her stances on landowner and mineral owner rights have the potential to put her fifth-generation Big Piney home at risk. Because the glacial melt supporting her home community is a finite resource, accelerating glacial retreat through the inception of drilling, mining and natural resource exploration impacts the natural landscape and ecological viability of her ranch’s activities.

Interestingly, when Budd-Falen was originally being considered by the Trump administration for a top position in the DOI, she was asked to sell her ranch— which she refused to do so— quelling her early nomination. However, her ongoing defense of individual land and mineral right freedoms continues to jeopardize the Wind River glaciers’ capacity to support her family home into a sixth generation.





Roundup: Zinke, Wilkes Island, and Black Flies

Increased Ice Mass Loss in Wilkes Island

From “An increased mass discharge (53 ± 14 Gt yr−1) was found in the East Indian Ocean sector since 2008 due to unexpected widespread glacial acceleration in Wilkes Land, East Antarctica, while the other five oceanic sectors did not exhibit significant changes. However, present-day increased mass loss was found by previous studies predominantly in West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula. The newly discovered increased mass loss in Wilkes Land suggests that the ocean heat flux may already be influencing ice dynamics in the marine-based sector of the East Antarctic ice sheet (EAIS).”

Learn more about the find here.

Antarctic ice velocity in 2015 and the velocity change between 2008 and 2015 (Source:

Zinke Seeks to Restore Glacier National Park’s Sperry Chalet

From Missoulian: “As part of a wide-ranging press conference here Saturday, Zinke said public comments overwhelmingly support rebuilding the popular backcountry chalet’s dormitory, burned in last summer’s Sprague Fire, as close as possible to its original state while making some upgrades. He proposes using a mix of public and private dollars to complete the work, adding that he is prepared to commit ‘whatever it takes in federal funding to restore the structure.”

Read the news here.

From left: Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow, Glacier National Park Conservancy Executive Director Doug Mitchell and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke discuss the future of Sperry Chalet, along with other national park issues, during a wide-ranging press conference on Saturday in Columbia Falls. (Source: Eve Byron/Missoulian)


Black Flies and Interactions with Climate Phenomena

From ScienceDirect: “The lack of simuliids near the glacier might be associated with the low temperature, low discharge, and reduced particulate organic matter of the meltwater. Our results are consistent with studies of simuliids in other mountains of Colombia, which document a lack of Simulium species above the páramo (i.e., in the super páramo) (Muñoz and Miranda, 2000)… Our results emphasize the dynamic nature of simuliid communities over space and time. Studies of how simuliids respond to El Niño and La Niña can provide a window into the effects of global climate change (Finn and Adler, 2006)”

Find out more about this disease transmitting vector and its environmental stimuli here.

Adult Simulium trifasciatum(Source: British Entomology by John Curtis/ WikiCommons)

Restoration of Grizzly Bear Population in North Cascades Halted

Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) (Source: Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith/ Flickr).

The National Park Service has halted plans to restore the grizzly bear population in the glacier-rich North Cascades ecosystem indefinitely. As first reported in the Missoulian, the order to stop work came from the office of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, which also recently delisted the Yellowstone grizzly bear after 42 years on the Endangered Species list maintained by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. North Cascades National Park Superintendent Karen Taylor-Goodrich told the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) that her staff had been asked to stop its development of a grizzly bear environmental impact statement, which would detail the potential environmental impacts of restoring a self-sustaining grizzly bear population to the U.S. portion of the North Cascades.

North Cascades National Park, located in the state of Washington, adjoins parkland in the Canadian province of British Columbia. It contains over 300 glaciers (the largest number of glaciers of any U.S. park outside Alaska). Grizzlies were once abundant in this diverse landscape until habitat alteration and the impact of trappers, miners and bounty hunters decimated the population by the 20th century, according to the National Park Service. It is estimated that only 10-20 grizzly bears remain in the entire North Cascades ecosystem.

The IGBC, an interagency group dedicated to ensuring viable grizzly bear populations across the United States, began grizzly bear restoration efforts in the North Cascades ecosystem in 1991. The group includes representatives from the Forest Service; the National Park Service; the Fish and Wildlife Service; representatives of state wildlife agencies; the Canadian Wildlife Service; and Native American tribes within grizzly recovery areas, among others, all involved in the process of creating a viable grizzly bear recovery plan in the region. In addition, any new federal proposal that could significantly affect the quality of the human environment requires public input and the creation of an Environmental Impact Statement.

A newsletter sent by the National Park Service (NPS) and Fish and Wildlife Service in January 2017 asked for public input on the draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan, with the aim to return a self-sustaining population of grizzly bears to the North Cascades. The letter stated that a grizzly bear restoration would “bode well for the ecosystem” and that “an ecosystem capable of supporting grizzly bears— complete with healthy vegetation and prey populations, and secure, remote habitat – is also capable of supporting the other species that call this ecosystem home.” It called for the public’s evaluation of alternatives to grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades ecosystem.

Grizzly bear on a rock (Source: Bauer, Erwin and Peggy/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Grizzly bears are important for distributing nutrients in North Cascades ecosystems. The bears deposit nutrient-rich carcasses away from rivers in forests, leading to significant uptake of nutrients by trees and other plants. This transfer ultimately helps the forest ecosystems and supports the long-term productivity of river corridors. Meltwater from glaciers in the North Cascades contributes significantly to river flow, particularly in the late summer and fall. In this way, they support the salmon populations— a staple of the grizzly bear’s diet— which come upstream from the ocean in fall to spawn. The NPS and Fish and Wildlife Service have considered four alternatives to restore the grizzly population in the region, ranging from taking no action to incremental restoration, which introduces five to seven grizzly bears and establishes an initial population of 25, to expedited restoration that aims to restore a population of 200 in 25 years.According to the Missoulian, the NPS was in the process of reviewing the public comments when the stop order came. “We’re in year three of the process and all the public scoping has been done. The draft EIS went out for public review in spring [of 2017] and we’ve received about 127,000 comments,” Taylor-Goodrich told reporters on December 16, 2017. She also added that the order has stalled discussions with Canadian wildlife managers who oversee a similar recovery process in British Columbia.

A statement by Conservation Northwest on the halt claims that the majority of the 127,000 public comments received for the environmental impact statement were in support of the restoration.

“We are disappointed that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the Trump Administration have put North Cascades grizzly bear recovery work on hold, siding with the local extinction of this iconic native species over the strong majority of Washingtonians who support their recovery,” said Chase Gunnell, communications director for Conservation Northwest in the statement. “Equally frustrating is that the many years of science, public education and significant taxpayer dollars that have gone into grizzly bear recovery in our region are apparently not being taken seriously by this administration…That the only remaining grizzly bear population in the lower 48 states outside the Rocky Mountains might be abandoned to such a fate by men who claim to venerate Roosevelt is downright shameful.”

However, there are some who oppose the plan. It was reported in Capital Press that a group of Okanogan County ranchers saw the restoration as introducing another apex predator that would pose a threat to their cattle. A group of residents, representatives of the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, representatives from Hampton Lumber Mill, business owners and backcountry horsemen in Darrington, a small western Washington town, also argued that reintroducing grizzlies would hurt tourism because it would close more roads to hiking and risk safety of hikers.

On December 17, 2017, The Yakima Herald also reported that Jack Oelfke, the chief of natural and cultural resources in North Cascades National Park had said that “efforts to restore grizzly bears were on hold indefinitely” and that they were “waiting for additional instructions from the Department of Interior as well as the NPS and US Fish and Wildlife Service.”

But Heather Swift, Secretary Zinke’s spokeswoman, told The Associated Press on December 19, 2017, that Zinke had not directed a stop work order on the environmental review. She did not provide further details in her statement.  No updates have been provided since then, leading plans on hold.

According to SeattlePI, Secretary Zinke is “a champion and promoter of sport hunting.” As reported by the Associated Press, Secretary Zinke is also an advocate of making changes to the national monuments under review by the Trump Administration and has already recommended that six of them be reduced in size.

However, in British Columbia, grizzlies face a different future. In that province, a ban on shooting grizzly bears has recently been imposed. “We want to promote the healthy grizzly bear viewing economy in British Columbia and give everyone the tremendous opportunities to see those incredible animals in their natural habitat,” said George Heyman, the minister of environment and climate change strategy of British Columbia, as reported in SeattlePI. It may well be that this support will help the grizzly populations to increase, in this area just to the north of the North Cascades National Park.  If policies in the US change, larger populations in the park could interbreed with Canadian bears, maintaining the health of both.

What’s New with Ryan Zinke: Big Sky & the Arctic Refuge

Big Sky Resort and the Madison Glacial Range

Secretary Ryan Zinke with Rep. Steve Daines on March 8, 2017, a few days before Zinke attended Daines’s event at Big Sky Resort (Source: Twitter).

Big Sky Resort in southwest Montana is making headlines for a controversial visit made by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke back in March. Big Sky Resort is a winter haven for ski-lovers across the United States, part of the Madison Range, home to nine perennial ice features of snowfields and rock glaciers. In addition to being open for snow activity, the resort also welcomes weddings, conferences, and most recently, political campaign fundraisers meant to attract wealthy out-of-state lobbyists.

Since GlacierHub last covered the Secretary, Zinke now faces allegations of mixing political activities with official business while traveling outside of Washington, suggesting he wasn’t at Big Sky to admire the rock glaciers and snowfields.

Following the resignation of former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price over private-jet travel at the end of September, Zinke has come under similar scrutiny, as first reported by Politico on October 10. One of the multiple trips under political investigation includes his “Weekend in the Montana Mountains” at Big Sky Resort.

Rep. Steve Daines, Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary Ryan Zinke ride horseback at Yellowstone National Park (Source: Twitter).

After spending Friday, March 17, riding horseback with park officials and Vice President Mike Pence at the nearby Yellowstone National Park, Zinke spent the evening and entirety of Saturday at a 2020 fundraising campaign for fellow Montanan GOP Senator Steve Daines. During this time, the Federal Election Commission did not list any reimbursement payments to the Interior for the events. Although Zinke wasn’t named on the invitation, his official schedule listed him as attending events throughout that weekend at Big Sky and flying back to D.C. on Sunday by private jet.

Other controversial trips include political fundraisers in the Virgin Islands, Anchorage, Alaska, and Las Vegas, Nevada, all while on official Interior business. Although Zinke isn’t the first Trump administration official to come under scrutiny for using government resources for official travel, his trips have certainly raised eyebrows of ethics officials for possible violations of the Hatch Act. Watchdog organizations have already asked the Office of Special Counsel to open a Hatch Act investigation to look into Zinke’s use of travel and political activities while in office. These organizations, including the Campaign Legal Center, question whether Zinke is focused enough on his day job given the amount of attention he has paid to fundraising campaigns. The Department of Interior did not respond to GlacierHub’s calls for comment.

Zinke’s Push for Resource Extraction on Public Lands in Alaska

Zinke signed Secretarial Order 3352: National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska in May 2017 (Source: Flickr/U.S. Department of the Interior).

But mixing political activities with official business haven’t been the only headlines Zinke has faced in past weeks.

On October 25, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and the Department of the Interior released their latest report explaining the “burdens” that “impede the production and transportation of energy resources.” The Interior has the authority to oversee energy resources produced on federal lands and waters, and Zinke intends to revoke many of the Obama-era regulations that protect environmentally-vulnerable regions of the country, including glaciers, from economic exploitation.

One of the regions under the Trump Administration’s radar is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). As GlacierHub reported previously, Zinke has long had his eye on this ecologically-rich glacial region for its potential price tag. In May, for example, Zinke signed an order with the intent of jump-starting energy production in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A), which includes the ANWR and in particular the 1002 area.

“American energy production benefits the economy, the environment, and national security. First, it’s better for the environment that the U.S. produces energy. Thanks to advancements in drilling and mining technology, we can responsibly develop our energy resources and return the land to equal or better quality than it was before,” Zinke said in a statement made on March 29 regarding President Trump’s executive order on energy independence. Proponents of preserving the ecological integrity of the region have expressed that drilling will damage an already fragile region.

However, despite the uneasiness of environmental groups, Zinke described how “developing our energy resources to grow our economy and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive” in his latest report. He emphasized that revisiting and repealing “Obama-era job killing regulations” will ensure that public lands are being “managed for the benefit of the people” and in an environmentally responsible way. The considerations the Interior is taking to ensure the production is done in an environmentally-responsible manner remain unclear. As President Trump often states, “We’ll see what happens.”

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Faces Oil Drilling Threat

For the past 30 years, extensive conservation efforts have protected the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil and gas interests. Now, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) under the Trump administration has renewed a movement to open up the refuge to energy exploration. In a document obtained by the Washington Post on September 15, the DOI urges the Trump administration to implement a draft rule that would strike a 1980s provision that prevents seismic exploration in the Alaska refuge. Seismic studies represent a necessary ground step for Arctic drilling and have been halted due to their impacts on local wildlife, including denning polar bears.

Established in 1960, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge spans more than 19 million acres, stretching from the coast to the glacier summits, and is one of the last intact landscapes in America. The refuge is home to the Brooks Range, which has peaks and glaciers up to 9,000 feet, and mountains that span 75 miles from east to west. In addition, there are around 37 species of land mammals, eight marine mammals, 42 fish species and more than 200 migratory bird species that reside in the refuge. With its abundance of biodiversity, the refuge is considered one of the most fragile and ecologically sensitive ecosystems in the world.

Pamela A. Miller, an Alaskan conservationist and former Fish & Wildlife Service wildlife biologist, told GlacierHub, “Opening a protected wildlife refuge to the oil and gas industry would continue Alaska and the nation on the fossil fuel course which is not sustainable in the face of adding a new source of global warming pollution – at a time when Alaska is already warming at a rate two times the rest of the nation. The Arctic Refuge today as a protected landscape provides resilience and safety for wildlife in the face of climate change which is transforming their habitats – and on top of that there is massive industrialization continuing to grow across America’s Arctic.”

A polar bear and its young in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Creative Commons).

When asked about the effects of climate change and drilling on the refuge, Neil Lawrence, the Alaska director to the Natural Resource Defense Council, added, “Climate change has softened permafrost, made tundra more vulnerable, greatly stressed coastal species dependent on ice, and overall made the flora, fauna, and geology of the refuge more vulnerable to any disturbance, including seismic and drilling.” With temperatures rising, glaciers like the McCall Glacier and other alpine glaciers in the Brooks Range have already receded at astonishing rates over the past half-century. If these rates continue, the Brooks Range glaciers will vanish in 80 to 100 years.  

Oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and seismic imaging studies could further negatively impact the Arctic ecosystems by disrupting the wildlife areas and the habits of species such as polar bears and muskoxen. “Scoping for oil includes seismic testing that is done by convoys of 30-ton trucks equipped with massive off-road tires, traversing large portions of the landscape, crushing sensitive plants and soils, impacting disturbance-averse wildlife, and leaving tracks that scar the land for decades,” Lawrence explained to GlacierHub. Climate change effects have already taken a toll on the summer sea ice, leaving many polar bears without a home.  

Caribou graze on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop (Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Creative Commons).

Despite its negative environmental effects, oil drilling presents financial incentives for the state of Alaska. Oil is currently trading around $50 a barrel. If developers were to reach the 27 billion barrels of oil believed to be in the U.S.-controlled portion of the Arctic, Alaskans would no doubt reap financial rewards. For this reason, Alaskan politicians like Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) support oil exploration which would increase the annual dividend each Alaska resident receives.

The newly proposed draft rule must first go through a period of public comments and pass other bureaucratic agencies, which could take around 18 months, before companies could place bids to start the exploration. Any approval to the memorandum would likely incite political debate and clashes between the administration and environmental groups who aim to protect the area’s biodiversity and glacial mountains.

In addition to this new draft proposal, the DOI under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has further urged President Trump to modify 10 national monuments, calling for the reduction of the boundaries of four of these sites. There is a lack of historical precedent for presidents to reduce the site boundaries of national monuments. For the time being, none of the national protected areas containing glaciers are being threatened with reductions in area. Perhaps the high mountains are so deeply appreciated by the American people that such a move would seem imprudent. Nonetheless, the threats to the Arctic Wildlife National Refuge and the national monuments show the importance of vigilance for our nation’s wild and natural spaces, including glaciers.

Roundup: Ultra Denials, Temperatures, and Marathons

Trump on Climate: Deny, Deny, Deny

From HuffPost: “Perry went on to defend his and others’ denial of near-universally accepted climate science, suggesting that those who question the scientific community’s findings are more intelligent. Also in June, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park started melting ‘right after the end of the Ice Age’ and that it has ‘been a consistent melt.’ He also dismissed the notion that government scientists can predict with certainty how much warming will occur by 2100 under a business-as-usual scenario.”

Read more about the Trump cabinet and its tenuous relationship to evidence here.

An artistic rendering of the world if climate change is ignored. (Source: Kevin Gill/Creative Commons).

Ski No More

From Reuters: “High temperatures that have hit Italy over the past weeks have taken their toll on the country’s glaciers, with a summer ski resort at the Stelvio Pass having to make the historic decision to suspend its activities due to worsening conditions at the Alpine glacier. Swathes of southern and eastern Europe have sweltered in temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104°F) this week in a heat wave nicknamed ‘Lucifer’ that has fanned forest fires, triggered weather warning alerts and damaged crops.”

Watch the short video here.

The Stelvio Pass, photographed in August 2015. (Source: Matteo Gugiatti/Creative Commons).

A Mountain of an Ultra Marathon

From the Bellingham Herald: “12 runners set out from Bellingham Bay for the top of snow-capped Mount Baker in the distance. To get there and back — a round trip of 108 miles during a hot, sunny weekend — they ran, hiked and climbed to the 10,781-foot summit of Mount Baker over two nights and two days. Eleven of them completed the arduous journey, a trek known as the Mount Baker Ultra Run.”

Read more about this impressive feat here.

The few, the proud, the extreme. (Source: Mount Baker Ultra Marathon).

BREAKING: Ryan Zinke Confirmed as Interior Secretary, Talks Glacier Retreat

U.S. Congressman Ryan Zinke of Montana speaking at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland (source: Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons).
U.S. Congressman Ryan Zinke of Montana at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland (source: Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons).

It’s official. The Senate voted today to confirm Rep. Ryan Zinke (RMT) as the nation’s next Secretary of the Interior. The strong majority confirmation vote of 68-31 gives Zinke, a Westerner and fourthgeneration Montanan, commanding power over the nation’s most prized public lands and wildlife as well as 70,000 employees, 280,000 volunteers, and a $12 billion annual budget.

The Department of the Interior— a Cabinet-level agency created in 1849 to manage the country’s internal affairs— oversees such critical offices as the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the U.S. Geological Survey, among others.

A former boy scout turned Navy SEAL in the Iraq desert, Zinke grew up 30 minutes outside of Glacier National Park in Montana, an experience he cites as the impetus for his interest and dedication to environmental stewardship. He has promised to “restore trust” in the department and address the $12-billion maintenance backlog in America’s national parks from Alaska to the beaches of Maine.

Republicans hope Zinke will also usher in a “culture of change” to the Interior by repealing many of the Obama administration’s land management policies seen to favor environmentalists over local interests.

Zinke, a Trump administration favorite, was once considered a moderate Republican when it came to environmental and land management issues, siding with Democrats on bipartisan legislation and standing up to fellow Republicans on conservation principles. He challenged Republican colleagues on the transfer of federal lands to the states, for example, speaking out and voting against certain Republican-led proposals. In 2016, he also supported Democrats in calling for full funding and permanent authorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund in a bipartisan effort. Most recently, in July 2016, Zinke publicly withdrew from the Republican Convention due to the party’s support of federal land transfers to the states.

150 people joined a rally at Senator Wyden’s office in Portland opposed to President-elect Trump’s 'Climate Denial Cabinet' (Source:
150 people joined a rally at Senator Wyden’s office in Portland opposed to President-elect Trump’s ‘Climate Denial Cabinet’ (Source:

At the same time, Zinke is a vocal advocate for oil and gas development on public lands, fracking and coal mining interests, and weaker protection for endangered species and national monuments, among other anti-environmental platforms, earning him a five percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters and an F rating from the National Parks Action Fund. His recent statements, particularly on the issue of climate change, have some scientists and environmentalists deeply concerned.

On the topic, Zinke openly oscillates between acceptance and denial, both of which he displayed during his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in January. However, unlike President Trump, who flat out denies climate change, Zinke went on record during the hearing citing glacier retreat as evidence that the planet is warming in a heated exchange with Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Sanders was the first to challenge Zinke on the issue during the hearing.

“Climate change is very important to issues that the Department of the Interior deals with,” said Sanders. “Is President-elect Trump right? Is climate change a hoax?”

Zinke seemed to have a response prepared for the question, launching into a multi-part answer on what he called the “tenants” of his climate change perspective. These include: one, his recognition that climate is changing, and two, his belief that man is an influence. “That is indisputable,” Zinke said, adding later, “I do not believe it is a hoax.”

Grinnel Glacier in Glacier National Park (Source: Nathan Young/Flickr).
Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park (Source: Nathan Young/Flickr).

Zinke offered Glacier National Park as an example of a visible symptom of climate change that he has witnessed personally. “I have seen glaciers over the period of my time recede. As a matter of fact, when my family and I have eaten lunch on Grinnell Glacier, the glacier has receded during lunch,” Zinke said.

This comment prompted chiding from Sen. Angus King (I-ME) later in the proceedings. “I want to thank you for your straightforward admission that climate change is happening, that human activity is contributing to it, and for also the image of the glacier retreating during lunch,” said King. “I am going to add that to my arsenal of climate change anecdotes.”

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) also weighed on the topic of receding glaciers. “Glacier National Park is going to be… I don’t know, ‘Lake National Park’ or ‘Mountain National Park,'” said Franken. “But it isn’t going to be Glacier National Park in 30 years.”

A view of Grinnel Lake, Glacier National Park (Source: Kelly Marcum/Flickr).
A view of Grinnel Lake, Glacier National Park (Source: Kelly Marcum/Flickr).

Around glaciers and the subject of glacier retreat, at least, the body seemed to find common ground. But when further probed by Sanders on whether climate change is a hoax, Zinke seemed hesitant. “I believe we should be prudent to be prudent,” he said. “That means, I don’t know definitively. There is a lot of debate on both sides of the aisle,” a response that did not sit well with Sanders.

“Well, actually, there is not a whole lot of debate now,” replied Sanders. “The scientific community is virtually unanimous that climate change is real and causing devastating problems.”

After several hours of testimony and questions that touched on diverse topics from wildfires in Tennessee, coal mining in West Virginia, protection of wild horses across the West, and the delisting of the greater sage-grouse, the committee ultimately approved Zinke’s nomination by a 16-6 vote, advancing his nomination to the full Senate. He was well received by the Republican senators on the committee who see in the congressman an ally and fellow Westerner sympathetic to regional concerns; less so by environmentalists and some Democrats who fear Zinke will shepherd the department in the wrong direction, perhaps even into an era of public land privatization from which there is no return.

Republicans see Zinke, who hails from Montana, an ally who understands local interests (Source: Atauri/Creative Commons).
Republicans see Zinke, who hails from Montana, as an ally who understands local interests (Source: Atauri/Creative Commons).

But on this point, Zinke drove a hard line, at least in rhetoric. “I want to be clear on this point. I am absolutely against the transfer or sale of public land,” he said in his testimony. “I can’t be anymore clear.”

He drew attention to his service in the military as an example of his strong backbone. “This is probably one of the reasons why the president elect put a former Navy SEAL in place,” he said. “I don’t yield to pressure. Higher principle, yes. But my job is to advocate for the Department of the Interior to make sure we have the right funds and to be a voice in the room for great public policy.”

But not all Montanans are convinced of Zinke’s ability to lead the Interior Department well.

“I believe that Zinke has at least minimal qualifications to be Secretary of the Interior simply by virtue of coming from a state in which hunting, fishing, hiking and outdoorsmanship are prominent concerns,” said Bill Cox, an economist and Democrat who lives in Montana. “About where he would come down when public lands confront mining companies, oil and gas drillers, and other commercial ambitions, I am much less confident.”

Jamey Loran, a fourth generation Montanan and a certified public accountant who has worked with Native American tribes for the past 15 years, agreed. “It is difficult to pigeon-hole him as a strict environmentalist or anti-regulation proponent. He will almost always do what is in his own political best interest,” he said.  “He brings a very simplistic mindset to complex problems. I have little hope that he will have much success dealing with problems such as climate change. In fact, I have grave concerns that matters will get much worse because ‘quick fixes’ always benefit those with economic interests over future generations or endangered species.”

Ryan Zinke speaking in Montana (Source: Tony Llama/Flickr).
Ryan Zinke speaking in Montana (Source: Tony Llama/Flickr).

Despite negative views like these, Zinke remains quite popular in his home state, recently winning re-election by a 16-percent margin.

“We are happy with Ryan Zinke as our Secretary of the Interior because he was raised in Montana surrounded by the wilderness and environment, which he will manage as opposed to someone who was raised in the city,” said Carl and Cheryl Baldwin, third-generation conservative ranchers from Montana. “We have talked to him personally as our representative in Congress and know his decisions will not hurt or harm our federal lands.”

Jim Martin, a retired home-builder in Montana, and his wife Judy, added that the balance of timber, recreation, ranching and wilderness is important, something that a Westerner like Zinke understands. “He has lived in other sections of the U.S. so as to realize regional problems with the environment,” said the Martins. “He will not let liberals overpower the conservative right.”

Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who gave the opening statement at the hearing, drew attention to the deep divides along party lines that exist at the end of the Obama administration’s leadership under Secretary Sally Jewell, a former CEO of REI.

“To state that Alaska has had a difficult or tenuous relationship with the outgoing administration is probably more than an understatement,” said Murkowski. “Instead of seeing us as the State of Alaska, our current President and Secretary seem to see us as ‘Alaska, the National Park and Wildlife Refuge’ — a broad expanse of wilderness, with little else of interest or value.’” It is a sentiment that was echoed by other senators from mostly red states throughout the hearing.

Zinke attempted to appease concerns about his ability to work with both sides of the aisle. “Even in this body, we are all different, but we all share a common purpose: to make our country great again. As secretary of the interior, I will have inherited 70,000 hard charging, dedicated professionals that want to do the same thing,” he said. “My task is to organize for a better future for interior and our country. I will work with anybody, as the list would indicate. I’ve never been red or blue. To me it has always been red, white and blue.”

Environmentalists, opposed to Zinke, must now hope awareness of the disappearance of our white glaciers might promote coordinated action between red and blue leadership under the new secretary, before it is too late.