To a cynic, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s murky proposal to open millions of acres of protected wilderness to mining companies who stash their profits abroad may seem likely to endanger Americans’ ability to marvel at the raw, untrammeled country of the west.
But fear not. Zinke has a rock-solid plan to maintain Interior’s connection to nature and preserve access to the unique mix of trepidation and bliss that inspired people like Margaret Murie and John Muir.
He’s put a Big Buck Hunter game console in the employee cafeteria at Interior Department headquarters.
— Secretary Ryan Zinke (@SecretaryZinke) September 19, 2017
(For readers who have never been to a roadhouse off a state highway or to a city dive bar that caters at least partly to irony bros, Big Buck Hunter is a stand-up arcade game where you “hunt.” Contrary to the title’s implications, in many versions of the game you can “hunt” things that are not large male deer — alternatives range from zombies to animals in sub-Saharan Africa.)
Zinke is right about one thing: #sportsmen have indeed made immense “contributions 2 conservation” down the years. The hunter and angler community is a wellspring of conservation activism and energy, invested as they are in keeping the country’s rough places from being smoothed.
But they’re hardly friends to Zinke’s current campaign to roll back wilderness protections. The community is no monolith, but many of the largest and loudest organizations of America’s hunters and anglers fervently oppose what the former Navy SEAL and Montana congressman wants done to land management.
By shifting authority over public lands to county-level civic powers, Zinke and President Donald Trump would expose huge tracts of unspoiled land to industrial exploitation that forever taints waterways, pockmarks canyonlands, and craters mesas. While remote bureaucratic decisions do sometimes frustrate local ranchers and naturalists — and may in some cases impede ecologically ideal management of forests and grazing lands — the sort of dramatic upheaval Trump’s team contemplates within land-use policymaking would expose those same places to the voracious and inherently destructive demands of the mining and fuel industries.
Outdoors groups initially welcomed Zinke’s appointment, but his continued hammering away at hard-won conservation victories of the past few decades has started to sour many of those relationships. “The level of frustration is growing daily,” Whit Fosberg, president of the influential Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, told the Huffington Post in July. Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) — who called him “a potential ally of sportsmen” earlier this year — went so far as to create a television ad decrying Zinke’s decision to “put our public lands at risk,” and asking, “What happened to Ryan Zinke?”
Zinke also wants to roll back the boundaries of some of the largest protected sites in the country, including Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears in Utah and the Cascade-Siskiyou monument in Oregon.
Northwest Guides and Anglers Association founder Bob Rees told USA Today that he “has never been more disappointed” than he is with Zinke’s plans for the wilderness areas.
While a draft copy of Zinke’s recommendations touts increased access for hunters and anglers as a benefit from his proposed re-opening of wilderness to industry, that’s a lie. Each of the monument declarations he wants to walk back already preserves full state government authority over hunting, fishing, and other wildlife activity inside these protected areas.
“If Secretary Zinke’s recommendations are acted upon, this will be the single largest elimination of protections for wildlife habitat in U.S. history resulting in a massive reduction in the quality and quantity of hunting and fishing opportunities on public lands,” the Western Values Project’s Jayson O’Neill wrote in an email to reporters.
Hook and bullet types have a dicey path to walk in their public comments on Zinke’s machinations, balancing the need to preserve their relationships with his office against the fundamental jeopardy of the wild spaces the secretary hopes to re-open to destructive industries. Once those places go, they’re gone forever — but Zinke still talks a good game about hunting access within the shrunken conservation footprint he proposes.
Late last week, his office put out a directive to expand access for hunters and anglers on existing federal lands, for example. The move generated significant positive press from the same groups that are so wary of his broader-scale attempt to shrink the acreage that is protected from tools more consumptive than rods and rifles.
That maneuver muddies the waters in Zinke’s favor. The same groups were out expressing major concerns on Monday after the draft report hit newspapers. “If these recommendations reflect the Interior Department’s suggested course of action for Congress and President Trump, our public lands, waters, wildlife and outdoor traditions could be at risk,” the BHA’s Land Tawney told USA Today.
But while the Interior Secretary may be playing a double game to shut down the naturalist community’s alarm at his apparent deference to fuel and mineral interests to date, he’s nothing if not magnanimous about Big Buck Hunter. Here he is openly admitting defeat in a cartoon hunting showdown with a Fish & Wildlife Service staff member named Casey during the inaugural afternoon of his plan to honor all those hunter-conservationists by not doing what they want him to do in the real world: