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News >  ID Government

New Ag, Interior secretaries call for retaining public lands, upping resource extraction

UPDATED: Fri., June 2, 2017

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, left, and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, right, speak at Boise State University on Friday, June 2, 2017. (Betsy Z. Russell)
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, left, and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, right, speak at Boise State University on Friday, June 2, 2017. (Betsy Z. Russell)

BOISE – The nation’s new secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior brought a message to Boise on Friday: Public lands must be retained, but they also must produce more through resource extraction.

“Up front, I’m not an advocate for sale or transfer of public lands,” new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said to whoops, cheers and applause from a crowd of more than 300 at Boise State University.

Zinke noted that national parks had 330 million visitors last year. “We know that recreation is going to be a bigger piece of the pie in 20 years than it is today,” he said.

But he said the Interior Department faces billions in maintenance backlogs on everything from parks to roads, and cost-cutting measures over the years have “stripped the field and the front line.” It’s largely because the department raises far less in revenue now than it did decades ago, he said, from everything from offshore leases to timber sales.

“I’m excited, and actually I’m an optimist,” Zinke said. “If we didn’t have good people, I’d be worried, but we have great people at Interior. And if we didn’t have great assets – we have the finest lands in the history of the world, because we have great parks, great forests. We need to manage them a little more aggressively, so our children’s children look back and say we did it right.”

“I think it’s time we start looking at forests as crops, as agriculture, and use them,” said newly-appointed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. “…Our people know trees, they know how to grow trees, they know how to harvest trees – we just need to unleash them and recoup the great resource that we have in our U.S. forests for the health of our local economies and for the value to the U.S. taxpayer.”

Perdue’s comment drew hesitant applause from a crowd that included federal employees, Idaho state legislators, university faculty members, students and citizens. Not all were in agreement.

“That’s old rhetoric,” said John Freemuth, BSU professor of public policy and a specialist in public lands. People have been comparing national forests to tree farms since 1906, Freemuth said, but it’s not an accurate comparison.

Perdue’s an ag guy from Georgia, so he’s talking ag-speak – that’s the way he talks,” the professor said. “It would probably behoove him to talk to Zinke about multiple use.”

The U.S. Forest Service – which falls under the Department of Agriculture – is “a multiple-use agency,” Freemuth said.

“Recreation is growing in importance on national forests,” he said.

So are other values, from wildlife habitat to water quality. Freemuth said successful forest collaborative projects in western forests have recognized all those values. “It’s getting some trees out of the woods, but it’s in a way people can support.”

No to Paris, yes to domestic energy

The two legislators also spoke out strongly in support of President Trump’s decision to withdraw the nation from the Paris climate accord, calling it a “bad deal,” in Zinke’s words.

Perdue called the international accord “poorly drafted for the disadvantage of the United States of America.” But he added that the withdrawal “does nothing to preclude us as Americans, as the Forest Service, as the BLM, as the Department of Interior” from following best practices for environmentally sound management of lands and wildfires.

Zinke also spoke out strongly for energy development on public lands, both for fossil fuels and renewables. “The administration is all of the above – I certainly am all of the above,” he said. “I don’t favor one over another. About 30 percent of our energy comes from coal. Coal faces pressure, not only on the regulatory side. … Some of it’s been punitive.”

A former Navy Seals commander, Zinke said, “Why is energy important for me? I don’t want your son and daughter ever to go to war over energy we have here.”

That comment was greeted with applause, led by Perdue.

Zinke said he believes the benefits of domestic energy production range from national security to economic and environmental benefits. “Is it better to produce energy here under our regulatory environment, of all types, than it is to watch it be produced overseas with no regulations?” he asked. “Until we find the great panacea, oil and gas fossil fuels are going to be around for a while.”

Reaching for a collaborative approach

Both Perdue and Zinke also stressed collaboration and interagency cooperation, saying they want everyone working together on public lands issues, from federal, state and local governments to citizens, businesses and conservationists.

“Frankly, the better collaboration we have and the better we do from inviting the local communities in, the better we’ll do with decision making and learning one another’s viewpoints, and how we can resolve that rather than resolving it in court,” Perdue said.

Zinke also touted the value of collaboration, but he recently suspended all meetings of Resource Advisory Councils, the citizen groups that have provided local input to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management on public lands issues since 1995.

“I have 225 different councils and boards, so I suspended them all, so I could ask: What do you do? Who’s on your board? What have you done in the last year? What have you done in the last two years?” he said.

RAC meetings across the west have been suspended until September.

Freemuth said collaborative approaches have begun to pay off throughout the public lands arena, with courts even beginning to give some deference to collaborative projects against legal challenges from outsiders who didn’t participate. Numerous collaborative efforts are under way involving Forest Service lands.

The Department of the Interior established the RACs in 1995; the BLM’s website says each citizen-based council consists of 10 to 15 members “from diverse interests in local communities, including ranchers, environmental groups, tribes, state and local government officials, academics, and other public land users.”

The two secretaries also toured the National Interagency Fire Center on Friday and flew with smokejumpers; and they signed an annual interagency cooperation agreement for the upcoming fire season.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said, “There’s a new sheriff in town, and there’s a whole new idea called collaboration and working together.”

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