Ryan Zinke, the former Commander in the U.S. Navy SEALs who served as Secretary of the Interior throughout 2017 and 2018, is quite happy about being out of Washington, D.C. He made that clear when we opened our recent interview by asking, “How are you today?”
“You know, outstanding! Free from the chains of office. There is light being out of D.C., and it’s good,” he said with a laugh. We were about to ask him to expand on that declarative statement of happiness, but there was no need — he beat us to the punch.
“What an angry, hate-filled city,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my lifetime. I tried to do the right thing, listen to everybody, but the hatred of this president is driving everything there.”
Mind you, Sec. Zinke has stared down a lot of hostiles in his life. While serving as a Navy SEAL during the early years of the 21st century, he spent time in both Afghanistan and Iraq during the most intense and violent years of the wars in those two Middle Eastern countries. Zinke’s political career also includes stints as both a U.S. congressman from his home state of Montana and a term as a state senator there.
In the latter months of his term as Interior Secretary, Zinke was himself the target of one of the most vicious and sustained media attack campaigns ever to target a federal official. His family was not exempted.
“My wife’s pretty tough. She’s a Gold Star spouse herself,” Zinke said, speaking of his wife, Lola, who’s previous husband died in an auto accident while on active duty. “She is on the VA advisory board. When I was overseas, my daughter was stationed in Kuwait; my son-in-law was in the Middle East, and I was in Baghdad or Rhamadi. All at the same time. So, Lola is proven in combat.
“But we were both shocked at the level of viciousness directed at us. As a congressman, it was much more cordial. But serving in the Trump presidency has been different than previous experiences we’ve had. People would stalk our house; they would harass us at the house; they would put up signs in the neighborhood. We received death threats to Lola, even to my dog.”
After a pause, he continued. “There were threats on the children as well. So, that’s the level of anger and hostility, and all these accusations had to be defended. The Department of Interior doesn’t defend against them — I had to defend them myself. All of a sudden here I am, a retired Navy Commander having to support a house in D.C., which comes out of my own pocket, and suddenly I’m paying $25,000 a month in legal fees? That’s more than I was making, to defend against what was frankly a lot of politically-generated BS.”
The Sierra Club and so-called Western Values Project were principally behind the hit squads targeting Zinke, and both organizations turned endless and costly Freedom of Information Act requests into costly ideological weapons.
“I went through so many attacks, and 15 different investigations,” he said, “All of which led, by the way, to the same conclusion: no wrongdoing. Everything was absolutely above-board. But I had been accused of so many things. After two years on the front lines, it was time. Because the accusations had formed a narrative that simply reduced my effectiveness. I ultimately decided that the mission of the Department of Interior was more important than any one person.”
Sec. Zinke resigned at the end of 2018, as so many other Trump officials have ended up doing, after coming under similar kinds of withering attacks from the national press and other opponents of the administration.
Zinke reflected on that reality: “The tragedy is there are a lot of really good people who would serve, but when you look at what happened to me, to [Supreme Court nominee Brett] Kavanaugh, to a lot of really good people, and you just shake your head and say it’s not worth it. So, we lose an enormous amount of talent in this country from different walks of life, who otherwise would serve.”
So, now the former Navy SEAL is back in his home state of Montana, and enjoying life free from the chains of the federal government. “I’m enjoying Montana right now, spending a little time catching up after 31 years of public service. Little things like repairing gutters, doing the maintenance on the cars, cutting weeds,” he said with a laugh.
“All those things that have been deferred for 31 years. I plan to take a little time, spend some time with my family. My two boys are relatively young. They’re 23 and 22, not married yet. My daughter has two grandchildren. By the way, I told my daughter two things: Don’t join the Navy and don’t marry a Navy SEAL,” he said, laughing again. “So she did both.”
“Right now, I’m being a grandpa and a dad for a little while. And I have a consulting company, Continental Divide International, that has a handful of clients I really like. A couple are emerging businesses that are trying to get big and need some advice on how to navigate through the process. So, I’m having fun that way with really good people to work with, and we’ll see what happens in the future.”
Zinke is also finding his way to Texas on a regular basis as he works with his long-time friend Art Cressman as an advisor to Cressman Tubular Products seeking to address the critical downhole tubular and pipeline infrastructure challenges our energy industry faces.
“Art is a longtime friend; we both retired from the Navy from the same duty station overseas. Our sons were born in the same hospital, and Cressman Tubular Products plays an important role in the downhole tubular supply chain.
“Most of our pipe and pipeline is foreign-sourced,” explained Zinke. “When we have companies like Cressman, veteran-owned, U.S. sourced working to meet the needs of our domestic producers, we can do better — so I’m working with Cressman to help meet the need.
“Our industry needs more independents like Cressman which is a great veteran-owned small business that has been an industry leader for over 40 years. I am proud to serve on the Cressman Tubular board of directors and help promote America’s energy supply chain.”
Drilling for crude oil in the Permian Basin and other shale plays has also produced record amounts of low-cost natural gas. Natural gas prices and a lack of pipelines to get it to market means that much of it gets burned away in an industry practice known as flaring.
“I’m not an advocate for flaring,” said Zinke, “it’s wasteful, and we can find a beneficial use, especially if we expand capacity.”
“I have a multiple-use philosophy.”
Ryan Zinke has maintained an intense interest in the conservation and protection of U.S. natural resources throughout his adult life. His interest began when he was an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, where he also starred as an offensive lineman on the football team.
“I have a multiple-use philosophy. One of my biggest influences was a gentleman named Bill Schustrom,” Zinke says. “He was an environmental studies professor, a great man who really was the one who introduced me to Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot and the multiple-use concept of land management. And I carried that forward.”
Generally regarded as the father of American conservation, Gifford Pinchot was appointed to be the fourth Chief of what was then called the Division of Forestry, which was, at that time, an agency of the Interior Department in 1898 by President William McKinley.
After Theodore Roosevelt became president in the wake of McKinley’s assassination, Pinchot was instrumental in convincing his long-time friend to create a new National Forest Service and transfer it from Interior to the Department of Agriculture. Thus, Pinchot became the first Director of the U.S. Forest Service.
Working together with Roosevelt and others, Pinchot successfully implemented the concept of the “multiple use” of federal lands, winning a longstanding battle with the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations that advocated for the simple preservation of those forests and other lands instead.
The “multiple use” concept is pretty self-descriptive: It advocates the philosophy that federal forests and other lands can be properly conserved while allowing for them to be used for multiple purposes, such as hiking, biking, skiing, boating, timber harvesting and development of the nation’s incredible wealth of mineral resources.
The National Forest Society, in its biographical sketch of Pinchot, has this to say about his philosophy and its implementation:
Pinchot, with Roosevelt’s willing approval, restructured and professionalized the management of the national forests, as well as greatly increased their area and number. He had a strong hand in guiding the fledgling organization toward the utilitarian philosophy of the “greatest good for the greatest number.” Pinchot added the phrase “in the long run” to emphasize that forest management consists of long-term decisions. During his period in office, the Forest Service and the national forests grew spectacularly. In 1905 the forest reserves numbered 60 units covering 56 million acres; in 1910 there were 150 national forests covering 172 million acres. The pattern of effective organization and management was set during Pinchot’s administration, and “conservation” (an idea he popularized) of natural resources in the broad sense of wise use became a widely known concept and an accepted national goal.
Indeed, the multiple-use philosophy held sway in every subsequent presidential administration, regardless of party affiliation. In Zinke’s view, that all began to change on Jan. 20, 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn into office as the nation’s 44th president.
“The Obama administration moved away from multiple-use to single-use, and that single-use excluded minerals, oil and gas, hunting; it excluded grazing in many cases,” Zinke said. “It resulted, out West, in control of land driven by Washington, D.C. rather than by people who live there.
“One of my closest advisors was Simon Roosevelt, grandson of Teddy Roosevelt. Gifford Pinchot III was also a key advisor. We would sit down, and we would talk about Roosevelt and conservation. We would look at the multiple-use model and discuss why it was important and why it was successful. So, I think I was on pretty strong grounds with critical advisors.”
“If you don’t know where the Yellowstone River is, why do you think you’re in the best position to manage it?”
That belief that lands are better managed by people who live on or near them rather than by faceless bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. became one of the key drivers behind Zinke’s efforts to reorganize the Interior Department in general and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in particular. The BLM is responsible for managing the onshore federal lands that are not classified as national forests. The vast majority of those lands are located in the Intermountain West, and Zinke quickly concluded that too much of the BLM’s decision-making authority had been concentrated in the District of Columbia.
“When I served as a state senator, I just didn’t like the federal government carpet-bombing the states on issues they just didn’t know about. I mean, if you don’t know where the Yellowstone River is, why do you think you’re in the best position to manage it?” he said with a laugh. “Same thing with the Red River in Texas: If you’ve never been to the Red River, if you don’t even know where it is on a map, tell me why you’re in the best position to manage it.”
As a proof-point of his perception that too much decision-making had been concentrated at the BLM headquarters in Washington, Zinke implemented a new process. “One thing we started to do was what I call pathfinding. We took a look at, on a specific action, how many levels of employees looked at that piece of paper, and how many people actually needed to in order to make the decision. The question we asked was, are you value-added, or are you just for information purposes?
“We found that it had all become D.C.-centric. Overall, I wanted to push more scientists out of the HQ and go back to the field. It wasn’t so much down-sizing. I think it was right-sizing in the right locations.”
Another aspect of the DOI organization he inherited that bothered Zinke was the lack of scientific considerations governing how the various agencies were structured.
“DOI is the fourth-oldest department, formed in 1849,” he told us. ”Over the course of time, the Park Service’s regions became different than the BLM’s, of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the U.S. Geological Survey — all of these agencies within DOI had different regional boundaries.
“In many cases, on a piece of ground where you’re trying to manage and put together a sage grouse plan, you might have an office in Sacramento, and you might have one in Salt Lake City. And the offices are disjointed.
“In many of these land decisions, the Park Service, the Fish & Wildlife Service and the BLM must work together. But often, different agencies work independently, and come to different conclusions. So, I said we all need to work together. So, I went all the way back to John Wesley Powell and reorganized all the various agency regions into unified regions based on watersheds.”
John Wesley Powell was the second Director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), serving in that role from 1881 through 1894. Beginning in 1867, Powell led a series of expeditions to explore several of the basins of large Western rivers. Those expeditions led to his belief that the boundaries of Western states should be established based on the watersheds of those major rivers in order to avoid future conflicts over resources. He later organized the USGS based on the same philosophy.
Zinke brought Powell’s philosophy into his job as Secretary of the Interior. “The fundamental science of watersheds and ecosystems should be the management standard rather than some state boundary line or a line that was formed in Washington,” he said. “I fundamentally changed the boundaries and reorganized the agencies to reflect this. Then I began to shift power on authority and decision-making to where it made the most sense. BLM primarily is out West, and to cover the issues of BLM, I think it is better to have the headquarters out West.”
Competition for top employee talent and standards of living were other driving factors behind his effort to reorganize the Department. “The other driving factor is that D.C. is so prohibitively expensive that for DOI employees, it is very hard to compete with places like Albuquerque, Denver, Boise, Idaho — there are some really fine cities out West where the cost of living is affordable for a GS-8 or GS-9. DOI has to compete as a government entity for the very best graduate students.
“BLM and Fish & Wildlife must often compete for people who love the outdoors — that’s a big draw. From a management point of view, I want to be very competitive and offer great standards of living, good schools, and a city where we can be competitive.
“So, the reorganization was based on science, on the basis of realigning so we do environmental reviews together jointly, and it was in order to be more competitive for employees.”
“Our family has always had strong personalities.”
One thing no one can say about Zinke’s time at DOI was that he was there as just a caretaker. As he told us at one point, “If you don’t like change, you probably won’t like Ryan Zinke.”
One of the major drivers of his desire to affect change at the Interior and move it back to its science-based, multiple-use roots stemmed from his experience fighting overseas in the U.S. Navy.
“My grandmother was a one-room schoolhouse teacher in Eastern Montana on an Indian reservation,” he told us when we asked what it was in his background that led to his driving personality. “This was at the age of 16. So, our family has always had strong personalities. With me, when I became a SEAL, I looked at why in the hell are we fighting overseas? I lost a lot of friends, and primarily we were in a battle over energy. We don’t need to be held hostage by foreign governments on our energy needs.
“I’ve spent most of my adult life fighting overseas primarily to protect someone else’s energy supply. It’s immoral that we would send our troops overseas to fight for an energy source that we have here. I don’t want any kids to see what I’ve seen. I’ve seen a lot of battles and some horrific, horrific things that I don’t want my grandchildren or your grandchildren to ever have to see.
“So, my experiences with the SEALs led me to very strong views on energy.”
But it’s not just about oil and gas. “I’m an ‘all-of-the-above’ guy on energy. People like to say ‘Oh, Zinke’s just for oil and gas.’ But I also, as Secretary, had the largest offshore wind lease in this country’s history, something I supported. Off the east coast. I wish we had better battery technology, but until we do, natural gas is the best choice for producing electricity in this country.”
Zinke is quite proud of what he and his team were able to achieve related to the environment at DOI. “We got a lot done in two years. But you know, the conservation side was as strong as the energy side, but people overlook that side of things. In Senator Orrin Hatch’s view, we did more for both energy and the environment than has been done by any administration during his 41 years in congress.
“On the conservation side, the President’s first budget had the largest conservation investment in the history of this country for our national parks. That was in the budget, to rebuild our national parks, which everyone loves. But they’re aged; they need new infrastructure investments; they need to be caught up to date.
“The President’s budget had $18 billion in it (for conservation), and we funded it with income from energy production. We funded it without raising royalty rates — we said we’re going to produce more on federal land, but at the same time, those who use federal land should have an obligation to take care of it, to be good stewards, and provide the funding for the infrastructure.
For the first time ever, we established a program to identify and conserve wildlife corridors.
These are mostly out West, mostly in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Colorado. To begin to look at these wildlife corridors and protect them into perpetuity was huge.
“We also got after the wildfires. I issued numerous secretarial orders on making sure that on federal lands we moved to remove dead and dying timber [and] do prescribed burns in the late season to restore the health of our forests. These catastrophic burns cost us more than $4 billion per year. The amount of damage, human loss in the case of Paradise, CA — a lot of that could be mitigated by better management policies.”
Sec. Zinke becomes positively animated when discussing the wildfires and the surrounding issues of forest management that have become so politicized in modern times. We asked him to talk about media reports during the time of the campfire that destroyed much of the city of Paradise in Nov. 2018, that he and California Gov. Jerry Brown were at odds with one another on what should be done.
“Despite the headlines at the time, Governor Brown of California and I toured Paradise together, and we agreed on a lot more than we disagreed on. We both agreed that we need better management techniques,” he said. “Paradise is an example. The only defendable area in that whole community was where a private logging company had thinned the trees out. There, the forest was absolutely healthy, and it slowed the speed of the fire down, which allowed the safe evacuations of hundreds, if not thousands of people.”
Zinke felt like much of the media reporting was driven by false information coming from leftist, anti-development groups. “These environmental radicals are very hateful; they’re angry; they’re loud, and they’ve said they would rather burn the entire forest down than harvest a single tree. They jump up and down about science, but they pick and choose what science they want to look at.”
He offered a famous example to emphasize that point. “Take the spotted owl — numerous studies show that it was a predation issue, not a logging issue. The barred owl is a vicious competitor and is reducing the numbers of the spotted owl. But these radical environmentalists would rather watch the entire forest burn down with all the destruction of habitat because they are fundamentally against the idea of logging.”
He paused before concluding with, “It’s their ideology.”
“The morality behind not having to go to war for someone else’s energy is powerful.”
Many of those same anti-development groups that Sec. Zinke refers to as environmental radicals also coordinate with sympathetic media outlets in their efforts to oppose the development of energy mineral resources on federal lands. It was a battle Zinke found himself constantly fighting throughout his term in the job, but one he feels is worth fighting.
“I’m a huge advocate of greatest good, best science, best practices, longest term,” he told us. “The fossil fuel industry is now the target of these radical environmentalists who don’t see the value of America producing its own energy. What they ignore is that, environmentally, it is much better to produce energy in this country under reasonable regulations than to have it produced overseas with none.
“I was a Navy SEAL who fought overseas for 23 years. I’ve been to Afghanistan; I’ve been to Africa; if you want to look at ways not to produce energy, I’ll invite you to take a tour of the Middle East. Or Africa. Or China.”
This philosophy of producing more of our own energy at home as a way to avoid the need to become involved in even more future conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe, to protect another country’s oil and gas was one of the major elements of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. It was also a centerpiece of the Trump administration’s agenda for “American Energy Dominance,” a phrase Zinke actually originated.
“You’ve seen the President exercise great constraint with Iran,” in his efforts to avoid becoming ensnared in another armed conflict. “Frankly, I would have advised him to take a stronger hand,” Zinke said. “But the President has made his view very clear about Afghanistan; he has made his view very clear about not being the world’s policeman and not bearing all the costs of this. And the Energy Dominance was my term, accepted by the President, lauded by the President, and what it really means is not being held hostage by foreign enemies for foreign energy.”
But it means more than that, and Zinke points to natural gas as a prime example. “It also means environmentally moving forward in a smart way. Natural gas can be this enormous bridge fuel for the next 50 years, but we have to have pipelines. We have to be able to move it.
“The morality behind not having to go to war for someone else’s energy is powerful. Ask a Gold Star Mom what she thinks. Yet, the radical environmentalists who have drunk the Kool-Aid are so against something that is environmentally responsible.
“Their views have become so radical that now they’re targeting cow flatulence,” he says, laughing. “You look at that and you think, when did cow flatulence become an issue? I’ve been on a lot of cattle ranches, and also on the historical records you can count a lot of buffalo — there used to be something like 60 to 100 million buffalo out on the great plains. Today’s there’s probably 10 million cows. Do the math.”
“Interior does a lot of things right.”
Another reason to allow for mineral production on federal lands under a multiple-use philosophy is the tremendous income it generates not only to the federal budget, but also to the state that is home to the land itself. The state of New Mexico, after several years of struggling with a chronic budget deficit situation, announced in August that its collections for the fiscal year ended on June 30 amounted to almost $8 billion, creating a revenue surplus of about 25% over its budget of $6.5 billion.
That sudden influx of new funds comes mainly from the increased oil and gas drilling taking place in the Permian Basin, which extends into the southeastern corner of New Mexico. In Aug. 2018, Zinke’s BLM held a record lease sale there that generated almost $1 billion in lease bonus payments alone from the industry. The good news for New Mexico is that the state shares equally with the federal government in those lease bonuses and in the subsequent royalties that will be paid on all future oil and gas production from beneath those lands.
“We had a billion-dollar lease sale in New Mexico last year, which was staggering,” Zinke said. “The previous administration claimed there was ‘no interest’ in such a sale. There was supposedly no interest in federal lands, no interest in fossil fuels. Well, I got a billion reasons out of that one lease sale why they were wrong,” he said with a laugh.
“Under the right set of conditions, everyone’s interested.”
Before that New Mexico lease sale, the conventional wisdom about shale oil and gas was that very little of it was beneath federal lands. Zinke noted that that perception has now changed. However, the former Secretary does see some significant headwinds facing the U.S. industry.
One of those headwinds has to do with the flaring of natural gas, a topic we have written about extensively in SHALE Magazine. “One problem is the gas flaring,” Zinke notes. “Shale just happens to produce an enormous amount of gas. But we are flaring far too much. It’s unsustainable; it’s unacceptable, and it’s just wasteful.
“The boy scout in me (Zinke earned his Eagle Scout certification while growing up in Bozeman, Montana) doesn’t like flaring. But having said that, we also have to make sure that we clear the runway on permit processes for these pipelines that are being held up by the radical environmentalists who want to keep it all in the ground.”
The other significant headwind Zinke sees the industry facing today is access to capital. “A lot of these pension funds have abandoned their energy portfolios,” he said. “But it’s more than pension funds; it’s the energy sector itself has been under-performing.
“If you’re looking for growth stocks, it’s really hard today to justify having an oil and gas stock in your portfolio as opposed to technology. Tech has exploded in the last 10 years, and it’s really tough for oil and gas stocks to compete with that growth, especially when gas and oil prices are relatively low.
“So, access to capital is a big thing, and I think what we are going to see is more consolidation. Because the capital required to drill, expand, permit is just so high. Just getting some of these projects permitted can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and you haven’t even done anything yet. You haven’t even turned your first shovel of dirt. The amount of capital now necessary for some of these projects is astonishing.
“So, some of the smaller cap companies will end up being acquired because I don’t think there is enough capital being injected into the industry.”
Looking back on his two years as Secretary, Zinke takes a lot of pride in what he was able to accomplish where energy is concerned.
“Interior does a lot of things right. During my two years, Interior was changed significantly. Our energy portfolio went from $8.3 billion to $12.4 billion. Who could’ve even thought 10 years ago that we would be the largest oil and gas producer in the world?
“The change has been a global shift. Look at these recent tanker attacks in the Middle East. Ten years ago, the oil price would have probably gone up over $100/bbl. Drones are getting shot out of the sky; tankers are getting seized, and today it had almost no effect on the price of oil.
“That just shows you the power of American innovation, and it shows you the significance of the energy revolution on American geopolitics.”
He pauses before continuing. “But I ruffled feathers. There is no doubt that if you like the status quo, you did not like Ryan Zinke. I was very aggressive in turning the ship to lead to a better direction.
“I’m convinced that direction was right.”
“There is an expectation in America that the SEALs don’t fail.”
Ryan Zinke’s career in the Navy and as a Commander at SEAL Team Six is an amazing story of bravery and leadership that has been covered many times. But in researching this piece, we came across one aspect of that career that has received little notice but says a lot about the complexity and versatility of the man.
In 2006, Zinke was chosen to establish the Naval Special Warfare Advanced Training Command, and served as its dean through 2008. By the time Zinke left, the NSWATC had become an international graduate school employing 250 educators, with a curriculum that offered more than 43 college level courses to over 2,500 students.
We asked Zinke to talk about the reasons why the Training Command was created.
“On special ops missions, the skills required to complete a mission often became so complex that we really needed a structured curriculum,” he said. “We needed college-level courses designed to prepare the warriors for what they were going to see.
“Let me give you an example: When you’re in Baghdad, and you’re doing urban, building-to-building, and you come upon a German-made federal, level-one safe, how do you open that? How do you open it without destroying the contents?
“So, we had to design courses on how to defeat very complex systems of that magnitude. And of course, when you train guys to basically rob banks, then you have to make sure you track them; they have to go through special security clearances, etc. We also had to devise courses on communications and UAVs and all these new technologies that Special Forces individuals will have to know. We needed a graduate-level school. I think a lot of the success the SEALs and Special Forces enjoy today is in the advanced training they go through.
“There is an expectation in America that the SEALs don’t fail, so the standards for being a SEAL are the highest in the world.”
Just one more proof point of the fact that, if you like the status quo: Ryan Zinke is definitely not your man.