New Interior chief lifts ammunition ban, promises bold restructuring

Secretary Ryan Zinke arrived for his first day of work on horseback, signaling a new take on the agency that manages 75 percent of federal land

Tami Heilemann / Department of Interior—X80001
New Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (second from right) rides on horseback with a U.S. Park Police horse mounted unit while reporting for his first day of work at the Interior Department on March 2in Washington

WASHINGTON, D.C. — New Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke plans to review Obama-era measures that limited energy development on some federal land and undertake a “bold” reorganization of his 70,000-employee agency, he said on Friday.The former U.S. congressman from Montana addressed employees at the Department of Interior’s headquarters on his second full day on the job, assuring them he would not sell off federal lands — as some had feared — but also promising change.”You can hear it from my lips: We will not sell or transfer public lands,” he said.The Interior Department, which is in charge of conserving fish, wildlife and their habitat, manages one-fifth of the land in the United States. It employs more than 70,000 people across the country.Zinke said he wanted to change the structure of the department, which includes the National Parks Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to give more authority to rangers and land managers outside the District of Columbia.”The last time the Department of Interior has been reorganized was about 100 years ago, so the reorganization is going to be bold,” he said.On Thursday, Zinke issued an order overturning an Obama administration ban on the controversial use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle used on federal lands and waters, in a nod to hunters and fishermen on his first day on the job.President Barack Obama’s Fish and Wildlife Service had issued the lead ban on Jan. 19, one day before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, to protect birds and fish from lead poisoning. The move was met with sharp criticism from the National Rifle Association (NRA), which called it Obama’s “final assault on gun owners’ and sportsmen’s rights.”Zinke also signed an order on Thursday that would direct federal agencies to identify areas where recreation and fishing can be expanded and sought recommendations for expanding access to public lands and improving fishing and wildlife habitat.”This package of secretarial orders will expand access for outdoor enthusiasts and also make sure the community’s voice is heard,” he said.Zinke, who was a first-term Montana Congressman and a former Navy SEAL, arrived for his first day at work at the Interior Department in Washington on a horse named Tonto escorted by mounted U.S. Park Police officers.Zinke, an avid angler and hunter, lifted the lead ammunition ban in one of two secretarial orders, which he said were meant to “expand access to public lands and increase hunting, fishing and recreation opportunities nationwide.”The NRA, as well as hunting and fishing groups including the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, National Shooting Sports Foundation, Ducks Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, attended the signing of the orders.Zinke’s home state of Montana is one-third federal land. In his comments Friday he addressed career employees who face an uncertain future under Trump. Some worry that Trump’s platform would open the door to selling off public land and more mining and drilling.Others fear deep cuts to the agency’s budget. Zinke told staff he was “unhappy” about preliminary budget figures and would “fight” to secure more money.Zinke has advocated for mining and drilling on federal land. He told reporters after his speech that he would review some executive actions from the waning days of the Obama administration that had placed more federal land off-limits to development.Those orders include limits to drilling in sensitive offshore areas like the Atlantic coast and Arctic, as well as a ban on new federal coal mining leases.”I think I am going to review everything that didn’t go through Congress,” Zinke said.However, he said the department would continue Obama’s effort to study whether coal leases had been properly valued to ensure taxpayers receive their fair value.”I think we all benefit from that rather than buying a junk bond,” he said.