One of Alaska’s best friends in the Trump Administration will be leaving by the end of the year. The announcement was made by the president on Twitter this morning.
Ryan Zinke, secretary of the Interior, has been investigated on multiple fronts over the past two years, but most of the investigations have discovered nothing of substance. With Democrats taking control of Congress, it appears that the investigation of a land deal with Halliburton Chairman David Lesar will only intensify and hobble Zinke’s work.
The investigation was spurred by Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who called for an inquiry into the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation that Zinke had set up over 10 years ago near his hometown of Whitefish, Montana.
Suggestions have been made by Democrats that Zinke would benefit from a nearby development that could have raised the value of property he owned in the area. That, and suggestions that he planned to open up a microbrewery at some point in the future, were also part of what has become a persistent attack on Zinke by Rep. Grijalva of Arizona, who is poised to take over the chairmanship of the House Natural Resources Committee, now that the House has flipped to Democrats’ control.
“Secretary of the Interior @RyanZinke will be leaving the Administration at the end of the year after having served for a period of almost two years. Ryan has accomplished much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation,” Trump wrote on Twitter. His tone indicates he was happy with Zinke’s performance.
So was the entire delegation representing Alaska in Washington, D.C. Zinke made a trip to Alaska quickly after becoming Interior Secretary and has maintained warm relations with Sens. Lisa Murkowski, Sullivan and Congressman Don Young, with whom he had been a colleague in the House.
Zinke acted quickly to reverse Obama-era restrictions on federal land in Alaska, and also opened more acreage to oil and gas exploration. It was a welcome relief after Sally Jewell led Interior and took a restrictive approach, going to far as to deny the people of King Cove an 11-mile road to the airport at Cold Bay.
“Over the past two years, Alaska has had no better friend than Ryan Zinke. He joins the ranks of Gov. Wally Hickel as one of the great Secretaries of Interior,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan.
“From assembling an all-star leadership team led by talented Alaskans, to unleashing American energy dominance — by reversing the previous Administration’s illegal lock ups of Alaska lands which hurt thousands of working men and women and their families, and approving the King Cove Road, Secretary Zinke’s impact at the Department of Interior has been immense. He epitomizes a federal government that is willing to work with Alaska, instead of creating obstacles.
“I am very sad to see him leave. His service to our nation, including multiple combat tours as a Navy Seal, has been exceptional. I have no doubt his contributions to our country will continue.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued his own statement: “I met with Secretary Zinke just this week and was deeply impressed with his grasp and understanding of Alaska and its people. Consider for a moment what he accomplished in less than two years. A road to King Cove that can prevent the needless loss of lives, our country’s reemergence as the world’s leading producer of energy, opening ANWR to safe exploration and forging a new relationship between western states and the interior department based on mutual trust and respect. I want to express my deepest gratitude to Secretary Zinke for all he has done for Alaska.”
WHO WILL REPLACE HIM?
David Bernhardt is Deputy Secretary at Interior. Nominated by Trump in April 2017, he was sworn in that August and is the second-highest-ranking official at the Interior Department. A lawyer, his expertise includes regulations and rule-makings, the Endangered Species Act, Outer-Continental leases, mining royalties, and Indian Affairs.
Bernhardt is a natural to serve as the secretary. He was in Alaska in March, attending a North Slope Borough Assembly meeting in Utqiaġvik, and speaking at an assembly at Barrow High School. He also visited Fairbanks and Nome. On his agenda was a listening session concerning oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Bernhardt led the International Boundary Commission between the United States and Canada and was responsible for maintaining the 5,525 mile international boundary. He also served under former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton as deputy solicitor, deputy chief of staff, and counselor to the secretary, and as director of congressional and legislative affairs.
Although Trump has made no indication of who he will replace Zinke with, Bernhardt is as likely a choice as any.