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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Gina Lopez: A Philippine Political Story

Before she was removed from office Philippine Environment Secretary Gina Lopez prepared to launch her latest helicopter tour of abandoned mine sites. Photo/Keith Scheider

A week after I arrived in the Philippines in late April, Gina Lopez invited me to lunch at her home in Quezon City, the center of government. Lopez was engaged in a national campaign to preserve her post as the Philippine secretary of the environment. Her 10-month tenure had yielded shutdown and suspension orders against 26 of the country’s 41 big hard rock mines. Lopez formed and promoted an interagency law enforcement campaign to impede the flow of timber logged illegally. She’d advocated renewable energy in a nation adopting a misguided program of coal-fired power plant construction in the midst of a less damaging and less expensive global renewable energy revolution.

In response, a Philippine legislative committee, acting at the behest of the mining industry, was preparing to remove her from office. It was plainly apparent, though, that the orders she’d signed, and the way she’d galvanized grassroots activists, would not be so easily cleared away. Lopez looked to me to be part of a welcome trend. Several more enlightened government officials have emerged in Asia. Piyush Goyal, India’s energy minister, is pivoting the world’s second largest country, to renewable energy. Indonesia’s Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, is seizing and sinking foreign trawlers fishing illegally off the country’s coast.

We talked as Lopez showed me around her home and gardens, which laid out on multiple levels accessible by wood and stone stairways. I told Lopez that I’d been writing about her since last summer. I was convinced her powerful advocacy for environmental enforcement and human rights was a signal of global transition. While the U.S. retreated on ecological safeguards Asia was tilting green in a way it never had before. China was cancelling coal-fired power plants. Vietnam cancelled a $12 billion steel plant because of pollution concerns. The Philippines had installed an eco-activist, a determined woman, to fulfill President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign pledge to rein in the Philippine mining industry.

The Philippines is 7,000 islands cast amid a blue Pacific. The country is stunning. Photo/Keith Schneider

“I’m thrilled to hear that,” Lopez responded. “I’m thrilled that what I’m doing resonates around Asia. It’s life. You need to sustain life. It comes from a deeper and more enlightened perception of what is needed to sustain life, and the role of the environmnent in the sustenance of life.”

Lopez is the daughter of a very wealthy and influential Filipino family that owns ABS-CBN, the country’s largest media and communications company. She’d attracted Duterte’s attention while working as the leader of the ABS-CBN foundation and taking on open-pit mining as one of her primary projects. An adventurer her entire life, Lopez’s airy home was filled with art and sculpture from various continents. Birds sang in the garden. Roosters crowed. Flower scents drifted through the open air kitchen and dining areas on several levels.

Lopez introduced me to her youngest of two sons who was returning to college. She introduced me to the woman who’d made her meals for years and the gardener who tended the tropical landscaping. She treated me like a friend she’d known for decades. I knew this was genuine because it was the same way she’d interacted with every other person she dealt with in the week I’d been around her.

Because of her strong views, courageous in a nation that regularly experiences assassinations of environmental activists, Lopez was lionized by millions of Filipinos. She made it a point to tour mine sites and hold public events, which attracted hundreds of Filipinos. Her communications operation was strong, especially her Facebook page that had 400,000 followers. By the time I met her Lopez had become something of a Filipino folk hero.

The rusting equipment of the Marcopper mine, site of one of world’s worst toxic mining disasters. Photo/Keith Schneider
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In the U.S., An “Episode” Set to End, Another Ready to Start

A dispiriting campaign is nearly over. A discouraging sojourn is about to begin whomever is elected.
A dispiriting campaign is nearly over. A discouraging sojourn is about to begin whomever is elected.

SOMERSET, KY. — A story of leadership and poise emerged on Wednesday night after the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. It is a lesson with lasting value to our national life.

The Cleveland Indians scored three runs in the bottom of the 8th inning to tie the game. Momentum had veered to the home team. To a man, the Cubs were rattled. Some said they were finding it hard to breathe.

At the end of the ninth inning, with the score tied 6-6 in a knuckle-reddening thriller, groundskeepers unrolled a big white tarp to prevent the infield from becoming inundated by an approaching storm. Cubs believe the rain and the short game delay were a divine intervention.

While waiting for play to resume, Jason Heyward, the Cubs’ right fielder, felt the sharp blades of fate and tension swiping at his team’s confidence. He guided his teammates into a tiny weight room off the main clubhouse to say something simple and powerful enough to settle them. Heyward spoke from his heart.

“Where’s that fire we’ve had all year?” he said. “Fight for your brothers!”

“I just wanted them to remember how good they were, how good we are,” Heyward told reporters. “Know how proud of them I was and that I loved them. That I mean it from the bottom of my heart. I don’t need to take any credit for anything. I just love them so much that, win or lose, I would hate to see them not be themselves.”

Jason Heyward
Jason Heyward

Oh that someone would emerge to deliver a Jason Heyward-like message of calm and assurance to this rattled nation. Five days before a destabilizing national election full of hate and lies and aberrant behavior, the United States could use a big group hug, and a trusted voice of reason. Half the country, it appears, wants to blow up the existing order. The other half fears they could. The race has reached a state of intransigence, a brawl over opposing values and principles every bit as pitched as that 6-6 ninth inning score.

Unlike a national championship baseball game, where both sides commend each other and accept the outcome, this national election displays no element of sportsmanship. Whatever happens on November 8, the election results are almost certain to widen the divisions and stoke the flames of disrespect, indecency, and incivility. Continue reading “In the U.S., An “Episode” Set to End, Another Ready to Start”

Henderson, Kentucky’s Riverwalk Along the Ohio River Shows Value of Public Investment

Henderson's three-mile long Riverwalk spans the southern bank of the Ohio River three hours downriver from Louisville.
Henderson’s three-mile long Riverwalk spans the southern bank of the Ohio River three hours downriver from Louisville. Photo/Gabrielle Gray

HENDERSON, KY — The 981-mile Ohio River Valley, which extends from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill. is full of surprises these days. Pittsburgh shed its sooty industrial coat of the 20th century to emerge as a center of engineering and biomedical innovation. Cincinnati, battered by race riots and disinvestment, is building a $1 billion riverfront neighborhood and a streetcar line.

Louisville’s days as a meatpacking hub are long gone. Now it’s the growing capital of the American bourbon industry, home to one of the country’s fine urban universities, and experiencing a boom in hotel construction to accommodate all the interest in its new stature as a hub of exceptional restaurants supplied with fresh locally grown food.

Further downriver, Owensboro, KY. passed a local tax increase to invest in downtown redevelopment that yielded a new convention center, rebuilt streets, two hotels, an office building, dozens of new residential units, restaurants, and a riverfront park complete with jet fountains designed and built by the same guys who shower Las Vegas in thrilling curtains of water.

Then comes Henderson, an Ohio River city of such grace and idealized mid-continent whimsy that you almost expect to see riverboats docked along the banks and trolleys at the center of the 100-foot wide Main Street. Tall trees shade the city’s residential streets. Beautifully maintained Victorian homes keep a vigil on the river and Henderson’s business district. In the early 1990s, film director Penny Marshall arrived with Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna, and Rosie O’Donell to use the three-story brick mansion with the lovely porch at 612 North Main as the set for “A League of Their Own.”

The newest piece of Henderson’s small town landscape is its three-mile Riverwalk, which spans the rolling bluffs of the Ohio River’s southern bank. The Riverwalk, in early evening, is bathed in the pink and purple of Kentucky’s characteristically beautiful setting sun. During the day the rumble of coal trains, and the vibrating bass of the big engines of river towboats form an attractive soundtrack for a city of 29,000 that was founded in the Kentucky wilderness in 1797. The city’s Riverwalk affords such views of the Ohio, the flat fields beyond, and the thick forests on the Indiana banks that it’s possible to imagine the stunning display of flora and fauna that drew John James Aububon here in 1810 to spend nine years studying and painting.

Henderson, KY., founded in 1797, offers an amazing collection of beautiful Victorian era homes. Photo/Keith Schneider
Henderson, KY., founded in 1797, offers an amazing collection of beautiful Victorian era homes. Photo/Keith Schneider

Continue reading “Henderson, Kentucky’s Riverwalk Along the Ohio River Shows Value of Public Investment”

Washington Is Not Working — Literally

The House of Representatives isn't doing much these days unless it's voting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Photo/Keith Schneider
The House of Representatives isn’t doing much these days unless it’s voting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Photo/Keith Schneider

WASHINGTON — Two events occurred here on Thursday this week that together are a nearly perfect distillation of why this otherwise pleasant city has become the capital of intransigence and frustration for people like me concerned about our national interest.

In the morning the U.S. Supreme Court announced, in a 5-4 decision, that campaign donations are a form of free speech, and that the wealthy can spend just about as much as they like to elect candidates of their choice. The ruling is the latest evidence that the hard right turn that the nation took with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 is producing ever bigger dividends for his supporters.

Reagan’s administration was devoted almost entirely to instituting Reaganomics, then touted as a means to reduce taxes and balance the budget. But what Reaganomics was really about, as its critics predicted, was enabling the wealthy to become so rich they could completely segregate themselves from the rest of the country. The Thursday Supreme Court ruling makes it much easier for the rich to control legislation and erect even higher barriers of self-protection.

Within hours of the Court’s ruling, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to repeal a provision of the Affordable Care Act. It was the 52nd time the House has moved against President Obama’s health care law. And like all the other times, the legislation has no chance of being enacted. The vote came a few days after the White House announced that 7 million people had signed up for insurance under the health care law, in my view an administration accomplishment. Republicans barked that the White House made up that number.

The larger point is that aside from harping on the president, and hoping voters send more arch conservatives to Washington in the fall, the House has expressed scant interest in anything else — wages, unemployment, immigration, energy, climate change, tax reform. Americans spend a lot of money to keep politicians and their bright young staffs idle in Washington.

I’ve spent a long time around Washington since 1980. My work as a journalist and former non-profit executive involves interviewing elected lawmakers, agency heads, and research personnel, and collaborating with public interest experts. I worked full-time in Washington, from 1985 to 1993, as a correspondent for the New York Times, which comes with unusual access to centers of influence and the responsibility to dig and report well in the public interest. Continue reading “Washington Is Not Working — Literally”