Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Tough Second Act

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke addresses reporters in Salt Lake City, February 2018 (Keith Schneider photo)

SALT LAKE CITY — January was supposed to be a great month for Interior Secretary Ryan Keith Zinke, the tall, cowboy-fit, decorated SEAL warrior dispatched by the White House to battle the “elites” and elevate resource development to the primary goal of the world’s largest conservation agency.

Guided by his personal hero, Teddy Roosevelt, who once said “conservation means development as much as it does protection,” Zinke opened the year with the most ambitious federal plan ever to explore for oil and gas off nearly every mile of U.S. coastline. Ten months in the making, the drilling scheme was the latest of the administration’s coordinated steps to sweep away decades of environmental impediments and unleash the fossil energy reserves stored beneath much of the 1.7 billion acres of ocean bottom and at least half of the 500 million acres of surface land overseen by the 168-year-old department.

The bid to decorate America’s coast with drilling rigs was bigger than even the ocean leasing program proposed in 1982 by James Watt, the last Interior secretary to try as hard as Zinke to swing the department’s mission from conservation to extraction. “We’re embarking on a new path for energy dominance in America,” Zinke declared. “We are going to become the strongest energy superpower.”

But five days later, like the unpredictable president he serves, Zinke disrupted the show. During a trip to meet with Rick Scott, the Florida Republican governor and likely Senate candidate, Zinke announced he was excusing the offshore waters of the Sunshine State from participation. The drilling waiver, which shocked his own staff, ignited an impassioned political backlash led by Republican coastal state governors, Congress members, and state lawmakers. It also put the entire plan in grave legal peril because at the very least the federal Administrative Procedure Act requires a substantive and rational basis for making new policy.

The public dismay grew more intense two weeks later when a senior Interior executive rebuked his boss and told a Congressional committee that Zinke’s waiver had no authority. Florida, he said, was still in the offshore drilling plan. As the month ended, Zinke appeared on CNN to counter his aide and explain that the exemption stood because, in Florida, “the coastal currents are different.”

It is not clear why Zinke apparently set out on his own to alter the Trump administration’s marquee energy development plan. Heather Swift, Zinke’s spokesperson, declined repeated requests to interview the secretary or members of his senior staff. “The secretary is unavailable,” she said during Zinke’s appearance at a hunter and sportsmen expo in Salt Lake City.

Ryan Zinke’s effort to expand oil and gas leasing in the West’s public lands is not attracting much interest across most of the domain. (Keith Schneider photo)

Whatever the cause, Zinke’s change of heart about Florida raised eyebrows across official Washington. “It was different, to be sure,” said Idaho Republican Representative Mike Simpson.
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Our Covered Wagon Stopped in Utah

Near Sugarhouse in Salt Lake City a magnificent park lies at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SALT LAKE CITY — Almost all of Utah’s 3 million residents — some 80 percent — live within ten miles or so of the Wasatch Front, which extends north to south for about 100 miles in the state’s northeast region. At the center lies Salt Lake City, a surprising city of 180,000 that is as modern, pleasant, and well situated as any in America. Near the city are magnificent trails that wind up into the mountains, which are drained by cold streams full of trout. Beyond the first ridge line are taller peaks and ski resorts that keep Park City hopping.

Restaurants are good. At Christmas the Mormon Temple grounds downtown are a festival of light. The business district is alive with foot traffic day and night. And the city has a decent NBA team, the Jazz, that this year boasts Donovan Mitchell, a University of Louisville first rounder who may be the rookie of the year in 2018.

To say that I’ve enjoyed it here is an understatement. It’s a western correspondent’s dream base. The airport is 20 minutes away, and flights anywhere in the West are two hours distant. At 85 mph, 600 mile drives to Montana or New Mexico are less than 8 hours away on clear highways, all of which are saluted by magnificent mountain ranges and expanses of tumbleweed desert.

The stories here also are compelling in ways that the East can’t really match. Because of the scale of the landscape west of the Mississippi, the tales to be told also are outsize. I’ve hustled to tell as many as I can. Almost every one has a political dimension that starts either in political Washington, or here in Salt Lake City. I’ve tried to keep the Los Angeles Times in front of other news organizations.

Salt Lake City, capital of Utah. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

A multi-billion dollar pipeline that is designed to draw billions of gallons of water annually from Lake Powell to slake the overly abundant thirst of an ambitious southwest Utah desert city. The White House effort to help the West’s struggling coal mines. The president’s attack on the Antiquities Act and his decision to shrink the boundaries of two big national monuments in Southeast Utah. The historically foolish and economically irrelevant administration gambit to lease public lands onshore and off for oil and gas development. The attack on the Endangered Species Act. A nuclear engineers’s dream of licensing an advanced reactor that could revive the U.S. commercial nuclear sector.
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In 2017, At Home On My Native Ground

Mrs. Schneider and me. The highlight of highlights of 2017 was marrying Gabrielle Gray in San Francisco on October 19. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SOMERSET, KY — Maybe because I married in October, and traveled to India in January and to Manila in May to write about environmental heroes. Maybe because I summered in Michigan without any deadlines to meet or editors to impress. Maybe because my mother regained her balance, our friends remain close, and our families and children are making their way so well in the world. Maybe because I joined the Los Angeles Times for a spell and felt the old muscle memory of daily reporting revive so easily.

Maybe because of all of these events, my despair for the nation, and certainly the world, is not nearly as profound as that expressed by so many other people.

I’m 61 now. If I was a blue whale I’d weigh 110 tons. If I was an eastern oak, I’d be 80 feet tall. If I was a bathroom I’d have been renovated three times. I’m old enough, in sum, to understand that every day is a little blessing, and a year is a prayer come true. In other words I’m happy even as I contend with the various bruises that will only mount with every new year.

Two dear friends died in 2017 — my lifelong friend and brother Andy Feinman passed in May; my Michigan friend and brother Dennis Pace died in October. Their deaths are a lingering hurt.

Andy and Dennis succumbed to cancer, which is the scourge of our Baby Boom generation. As kids we were exposed to the most persistent levels of chemical and radioactive poisons in history. Cancer is the unsparing disease born in industrial mid-century America. It strikes decades later when we are well into middle age. For the Baby Boomers, the fifties and sixties amount to a generational kill zone.

If there is any personal solace it may lie in this conclusion: If you survive your sixties you’re in pretty good shape to enjoy as much of your old age as you’re willing to accept. I’m just starting to navigate that sixties kill zone. So far, so good.

In almost every other way, 2017 unfolded in chapters that were surprising, delightful, and satisfying. After a six-year romance, Gabrielle and I were engaged on April 19 in New York where I purchased a ring in the 47th Street Diamond District, dined with my brother Reed, and were serenaded by bluegrass musician friends Dominick Leslie and Phoebe Hunt at a Greenwich Village club that we closed well after midnight. Six months to the day later, we were joined by Maggie Gray and Samson Grisman in San Francisco and were wed in that city’s magnificent City Hall.

Moments after our declarations with Maggie, Samson, and wife Gabrielle. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

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The White House Wants To Disrupt Elko County and a Whole Lot of Other Places in the West

The Ruby Mountains in Elko County, northeast Nevada. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

ELKO, NEV. – From this rest stop desert city midway between Salt Lake City and Reno the snow peaks of the Ruby Mountains are like finely crafted wainscoting in an elegant ballroom. The slopes rise sharply to form triangles in the sky. In 1989, Congress approved permanently safeguarding 92,650 wooded acres along the ridge lines from any intrusions in the Ruby Mountain Wilderness. The big flat sagebrush valley that runs up to the base of the mountains’ western flank is open range for grazing, and hunting ground for golden eagles. The watery meadows on the eastern flank are nesting sites for migrating birds. Since 1938, 37,632 acres of it have been protected as the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Elko is an intriguing place. It’s the biggest city in the nation’s sixth largest county and has a nationally-recognized cowboy poetry festival every winter. Elko also has understood since its founding as a railroad stop in 1869 the economic value of extracting resources from the land and conserving the natural geography. The county is home to one of the largest gold mining sectors in the United States. Elko County, where about 50,000 people live, was hardly scratched in the 2008 to 2012 Great Recession because Americans got so freaked out that the price of gold climbed to $2,000 an ounce.

Lately, though, residents in Elko County have been stirred up by a plan, hatched in the Trump White House, to disrupt the decades-long equilibrium they’ve achieved between extraction and conservation. In the last week of December I drove out to Elko from my base in Salt Lake City to take a tour of the Ruby Mountains and see what’s going on. Since early October I’ve been based in Utah’s capital city to report for the Los Angeles Times as the western environment and public lands correspondent. My contract ends in early March. Until then I’ve got time and room to roam to tell a momentous story of an administration’s pursuit of an economic and energy development story in the West that does not fit its time. (Read my reports here.)

The Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1938, sits in a valley on the east side of the Ruby Mountains. (Photo/Keith Schneider

The powerful tide of that story washed into Elko County in September when residents learned that the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Ruby Mountains, is preparing to auction leases for oil and gas development on some 50,000 acres of public land that border the wilderness on the western flanks, and the wildlife refuge on the east. The Bureau of Land Management, the Interior Department agency that owns and manages most of the public land in the West, also is preparing an oil and gas lease auction for hundreds of thousands of acres of public desert land in the western reaches of the county. Continue reading “The White House Wants To Disrupt Elko County and a Whole Lot of Other Places in the West”

Dennis Pace Loved His Life in Benzie County

Dennis Pace was a good athlete and loved cross country skiing. He also was almost always the tallest guy in the group, which left to right, included Heath Green, Kayla Bates, Keith Schneider, and Jack Gyr. Photo/Keith Schneider

I looked back in my photo archive to find a picture of Dennis Pace, my dear friend who died last week. I found I’d photographed Dennis solely in the winter while we skied or skated. Strange since Dennis and I spent a lot of time together during every other season, as well. He was a bike rider, a soccer and basketball and tennis player. We ran the Sleeping Bear dune trails and sailed on Crystal Lake. We shared good meals and drank beer on his deck and mine. We talked a lot about the ideas of the day. All the kids loved him.

Though he was raised in the Phoenix desert and educated at the University of California at Berkeley, Dennis very clearly ventured East to discover a region that fit his soul. Benzie County, near the top of Lake Michigan, is a one-stoplight forested county where no town holds more than 1,000 residents. Young people like Dennis arrived in the 1980s and early 1990s to build lives far from the places where they were raised.

Dennis landed in Benzie County in 1988. He, his wife Kate, and their two children, Isabel and Dakota, joined a community of caring people who formed a circle of trust and experience that he found delightful and absorbing. During the next 29 years Dennis built a lot of other good circles in Benzie County.

Dennis Pace was a good skater and raised funds to keep the ice rink in Benzonia active in the winter. Photo/Keith Schneider

His passions were his children and grandchildren, his parents and friends, music, sports, and his community. When his kids were young he was a fixture playing midfield at every soccer game, center at basketball games, and wing at hockey games. After Isabel and Cody and all the other kids grew up, Dennis managed the Benzie Area Youth Soccer Program for nearly 20 years. He raised funds to keep the Benzonia ice rink open in the winter. He joined the board of Beulah’s Darcy Library. Trained as an optometrist, Dennis cared for us at the Scarborough Family Eyecare office in Beulah. The Betsie Current newspaper published a really nice piece on Dennis two years ago.

He loved music and played with friends every Thursday at his home in Beulah. He sailed and anchored a sweet and agile boat on Crystal Lake. He liked small parties and dinners with friends. He cooked an impressive brisket feast. Dennis was generous with his time and his affection. He liked the steadiness of firm schedules and easy events, like basketball games on TV at the Hahn’s, breakfast every morning with Jonathan Clark at L’Chayim Delicatessen, and coffee with friends every Saturday in Beulah. Continue reading “Dennis Pace Loved His Life in Benzie County”