Conservation Public Lands & Waters

Zinke’s World View

For Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, conservation means action. And action, more often than not, means that our public lands are poised to play an increasingly large role in a return to America’s boom-and-bust extraction economy
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Ryan Zinke Andrew McKean interview
Chris Sorenson

We’re not long into our hike along the snowy shoreline of Glacier National Park’s Lake McDonald when I pop the question I’ve been wanting to ask Ryan Zinke since he was confirmed as Secretary of the Interior back in March. The way I intended to frame the question had both reach and context, even if it was a little wordy:

“You consistently identify yourself as somebody who models himself on Theodore Roosevelt,” was how I had written the query in my notebook. “You’ve repeatedly called yourself a ‘Teddy Roosevelt guy.’ Roosevelt’s legacy is based on his use of the structure and authority of the federal government to protect landscapes for future generations and to promote multiple use of our public lands. So far in your administration, you’ve made headlines for rolling back protections of federal land under your jurisdiction, most recently national monuments in Utah. Can we expect to see initiatives modeled around Roosevelt’s conservation ethic in the future?”

But what came out of my mouth was: “So, when does TR show up?”

Zinke stopped walking. He squared up to me, his 6-foot-2 stature and SEAL Team glower imposing. I braced for a scolding or a lecture. What I got instead was a rambling perspective that explains much of what Zinke has done so far as secretary. And it offers an insight into a management philosophy that many Interior watchers say strains, if not tortures, Roosevelt’s brand of conservation.

He starts by telling me a story that aligns with our previous discussion, which had been about management of national parks. Zinke, who grew up in nearby Whitefish, Mont., before a Navy career that culminated in SEAL team leadership, then a stint as a state senator and a term in Congress, had met with Glacier Park administrators prior to our interview. Much of their discussion had centered on wildfire prevention and recovery. Last summer, one of the parks’ historic backcountry lodges, the 104-year-old Sperry Chalet, was gutted by a lightning-caused fire. Zinke had started our interview by announcing that he intends to rebuild the iconic structure.

“We’re going to make Sperry better than it was,” Zinke said as we walked along the rocky shoreline of Lake McDonald. “We’re going to make it newer and modern.”

Then he told me that his father, a plumber in Whitefish, had plumbed Sperry “back in the day,” in one of its few concessions to modernity.

“It was pretty rugged. You talk to anybody who stayed overnight up there, and they’ll tell you about the sound-proofing. There wasn’t any. You could hear anything that was going on from one end of the lodge to the other, whether it was an argument or something, well, more amorous. A lot of kids got an education in that place.”

Before I can remind Zinke that Sperry’s rustic, primitive character was precisely what gave it its charm, he concludes: “We’re going to rebuild, add some sound-proofing this time.”

The Sprague Fire that burned the chalet was part of a wider trend last summer that saw the worst fire season in Montana in 30 years. As we walk, Zinke points to the dense stand of Douglas fir on the slopes above the lake. It’s an uninviting desert of same-aged trees, too thick to hike through, a monoculture unbroken by a larch or an aspen.

Ryan Zink
Zinke (left) and the author hike the shoreline of Lake McDonald. Chris Sorenson

“Those trees are a fire waiting to happen. We spent $2 billion on fire suppression this year. We can’t afford to keep doing that. The first step in fire management has got to be prevention. The reality is that our climate is changing. We are having longer fire seasons, and fires are bigger and burn hotter. So we need to reduce the fuel load. We need proactive timber management, including using prescribed burns in times of the year when it makes sense.”

“Are you recommending that we log our national parks?” I ask Zinke. National parks are among the most restrictive of the many designations of land use in the Department of Interior’s 500-million-acre real-estate portfolio, a fifth of the nation’s land mass. You can’t hunt in national parks, there’s no resource development, and many other activities are categorically prohibited, including commercial logging.

His answer—I think—is contained in a looping, obtuse answer that characterizes much of our day-long conversation. The Secretary of the Interior tells me that in his meeting with Glacier’s administrators, he raised the question of timber management inside the park. Zinke wants to see more cutting and thinning, both to reduce the intensity of wildfire and to boost biodiversity in critical ecosystems.

“I had a parks administrator tell me that timber management wasn’t his priority, that his priority was managing visitors. I told him, ‘Then what do I need you for? If managing visitors is your only job, then all I need is a ticket-taker at the entrance gate.’ So many people get into park management because they’re preservationists. I’m a conservationist, and that means actually managing what we’re stewards of.”


It’s at this moment that I decide to ask Zinke about his Teddy Roosevelt hero worship.

Zinke recounts Roosevelt’s conservation vision and the political brinkmanship required to bring 165 million acres of land under federal management at the beginning of the last century. Then he cites Roosevelt’s celebrated visit to the godfather of American conservation, John Muir, out in California’s Yosemite Valley, years before it was designated as a national park. Historians have called this meeting “the camping trip that changed America,” because Roosevelt came away with a blueprint for preserving America’s most remarkable landscapes as national parks and monuments.

Ryan Zinke Glacier national park
Zinke in Glacier National Park. Chris Sorenson

Zinke tells me that the mule-pack trip that Roosevelt and Muir shared, to Yosemite’s Glacier Point promontory, couldn’t be replicated today “because of all the dead and dying trees in the way.” [Fact check: you can still follow much of their trail to Glacier Point and Bridalveil Falls.]

Then Zinke says that the thing he admires most about Roosevelt was his appointment of Gifford Pinchot to be the first chief forester of the United States.

“I’m a staunch supporter of Gifford Pinchot,” Zinke says. “He understood that motto [which is engraved on the entrance arch of our first national park: Yellowstone]: For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People. He believed in active management of our public lands, lands that weren’t to be locked up or reserved just for viewing. These were lands that were intended to be used.”

It occurs to me that Zinke is defining himself as much as he is describing Pinchot. Nearly everything we discuss over the course of our day together—Department of Interior reorganization, Zinke’s recommendations on reducing the scope of certain national monuments, his eagerness to upend collaborative conservation planning, even his enthusiasm for energy development as the foremost of the many multiple uses of federal land—comes back to this view of his role as that of an activist manager, that our public lands are to be used as economic engines to produce tangible resources, and not, as he puts it, “to be looked at as museum pieces.”

“The worst thing that we can do,” Zinke told me three times over the course of the day, “is to do nothing.”

When I ask Zinke about all the hunting, fishing, camping, and hiking that takes place on federal lands, including national monuments, and whether he considers these to be “do-nothing” activities, he says they share equal footing with other uses, including industrial development. “I’m a multiple-use guy, and that means trying to balance all activities on federal land equally when we can.”

As he spoke, I thought back on all the conservation groups that supported Zinke during his confirmation to the Interior post. Nearly all cited his moderate voting record as a state senator and congressman, his self-described Rooseveltian conservation ethic, and his background as a hunting and fishing Westerner. They anticipated that he might be a lonely voice for collaboration and incrementalism in an administration that seems intent on turning back the clock on public policies. Even Zinke detractors were impressed that he rode a horse to his first day of work at Interior, embodying Roosevelt’s “strenuous life” directive.

One of Zinke’s first official acts appeared to confirm conservationists’ support. Secretarial Order 3356 directs Department of Interior bureaus to expand public access to hunting, shooting, boating, and fishing on federal land, and to actively promote those activities on wildlife refuges, national monuments, and tribal lands.

Zinke’s Rooseveltian side seemed to show again in November, when he accepted the donation of a 3,600-acre ranch that provided the first public access to a 16,000-acre wilderness area in northeastern New Mexico.

“I’m happy to announce the Sabinoso Wilderness Area is finally open and accessible to hunters and all members of the public for the first time ever,” Zinke told reporters at the time. Hunting-minded conservationists hung on the words “accessible” and “public,” and seemed prepared to confirm Zinke’s bona fides as a manager who considered the non-consumptive use of federal lands on par with more extractive uses.

But a month later, any good will these groups held for Zinke vanished when he recommended to President Trump that 2 million acres be removed from a pair of national monuments in Utah. Federal land removed from the monuments will still be accessible for hunting, fishing, and other public uses, but it will also be eligible for oil and gas leasing and expanded motorized access, restricted activities under the monument status.

The upshot is that, as Zinke begins his second year in office in March, he faces increasingly entrenched opposition from quiet-use conservationists, suspended judgement from more pragmatic organizations that hope to sustain working relationships with federal agencies, and generally positive reviews from energy companies that hope to drill or mine on federal land.


Ryan Zinke is home in northwest Montana for his 56th birthday, and it’s mainly a kick-back weekend—his unlaced Sorel boots and stretchy gray pants and jacket that look like they came from the Navy’s casual-lifestyle collection are evidence of that. But he wanted to meet with Glacier Park officials, and afterward agreed to spend much of the day with me.

Because Zinke has granted relatively few interviews since his appointment as Secretary of the Interior, I came armed with a dozen questions on a dozen topics. The first was about his just-announced plan to double entrance fees at 17 national parks that have seen record visitation in recent years, including Glacier.

I asked Zinke to square the objective of the fees—to raise $70 million annually to fund deferred maintenance at these popular parks—with the Trump Administration budget that cuts $300 million in national parks management. Instead of addressing the question, he introduced his vision for national parks, which could privatize many centralized services.

“We have to bring our parks into the modern age,” he told me, noting that he’d like to work with private concessionaires to provide transportation services, much like the way the iconic red “jammer” buses transport visitors inside Glacier, for a fee. He imagines working with vendors such as Tesla to provide “transporters” through various parks. Maybe the private sector can help with some of the national parks system’s infrastructure costs, too, he said. “It will cost us $11.5 billion just to repair and maintain the parks facilities that we currently have, let alone modernizing them with bike lanes and camping facilities for RVs.”

Zinke proposes farming out services such as operation and maintenance of employee housing to private contractors, so that parks employees can “concentrate on parks and visitors’ experiences, and not on fixing doors and roofs of old buildings.”

Zinke actually is mulling a much larger reorganization of the Department of the Interior, one that would borrow from a century-old vision of jurisdictional boundaries defined by watersheds. Zinke announced his plans to move the headquarters of at least three Interior branches—Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service—to Denver and to align much of the field work of consolidated bureaus along 13 major watershed boundaries.

Ryan Zinke Glacier national park
The Glacier National Park entrance. Chris Sorenson

“The last reorganization of the Department of the Interior was 100 years ago,” Zinke told me. “Today, the National Park Service has its own [administrative] regions. The Fish & Wildlife Service has its own regions. The Bureau of Reclamation has its own regions. So how does that play out in the field? Well, if you have a trout and a salmon in the same stream; the salmon is managed by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The trout is managed by me [Department of Interior], the water might be managed by the Forest Service but downstream it’s managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, and if it flows through an Indian reservation it’s managed by me, via the Bureau of Indian Affairs through a water compact.”

There might not be an easy or painless way through the thicket of overlapping bureaucracies, but the watershed alignment has merit among those who think our natural resources should be managed by ecosystem, not artificial political boundaries. While it would be tough to accomplish today, with so many interconnected jurisdictions, the idea gets at Zinke’s yen to tinker with long-established conventions.

“Centralized decisions, decentralized execution,” Zinke trilled, summing up his administrative worldview, which is remarkably close to the way his old fraternity, the Navy’s SEAL teams, approach mission accomplishment. Later he added to the martial theme. “You want your generals where the fight is.”

Zinke may be years into his Navy retirement, but this notion of fighting and battle formation is never far from his mind. You get the idea he looks at Interior employees as a ragtag bunch of conscripts who need strong leadership, and he’s eager to point out the Navy SEAL alums he’s appointed to his management team.

But command goes both ways. Some of Zinke’s early champions expected him to push back against some of President Trump’s more controversial positions, including easing restrictions on energy leasing on federal lands, granting permit holidays to major industries, and walking back endangered species conservation rules. They didn’t appreciate the depth of the Navy veteran’s respect for hierarchy. They didn’t fully understand that, when his commander-in-chief commands, Zinke complies.


Zinke’s yes-sir responsiveness and his default to activist management helps explain his recommendation to President Trump that the size of two sprawling national monuments in Utah be significantly reduced. Trump made the announcement in early December, to the dismay of most of the nearly 3 million Americans who commented on the proposal asking for no change in boundary designation or acreage.

I, myself, had written in support of keeping the monuments intact, and during our interview, asked Zinke if he somehow considers national monuments to be a troublesome designation. Monuments aren’t off-limits for management; in fact, most traditional uses are allowed inside national monuments, including hunting, fishing, camping, and grazing. And monuments often include federal lands that might not be a good fit for more restrictive designations, like national parks or wildlife refuges. So why do Zinke and Trump have such a bone in their throat about monuments? Many think it’s because the sprawling Utah monuments—the 1.9-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument designated in 1996 and the Bears Ears National Monument designated in 2015—were created by two previous Democratic presidents. Like it’s doing with Obamacare, the Paris climate accord, and immunity for illegal immigrants, the Trump Administration is intent on scrapping landmark actions of his predecessors.

Bears Ears National Monument
Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Bureau of Land Management

So I asked Zinke: “Mr. Secretary, do you have a problem with monuments in general or just in specifics?”

He answered with another lecture, one that has to do less with politics and more with process.

“I’ve become a subject expert in monuments over the last months, and I can tell you that the president was right to request a review of monuments,” Zinke said. “People need to read the Antiquities Act. Congress delegates certain powers to the president to be protected under the act. But fundamentally, the items protected have to have an objective, to protect a historic, cultural, or scientific value. The Act clearly establishes that monuments are to be the ‘smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.'”

The monuments that Trump reduced in size were politically motivated over-reaches, Zinke said, by presidents trying to shore up their base in the environmental community.

“It’s my view that some monuments have been put in place to prevent use, rather than to protect objects,” he said.

“My main concern with monuments [is] to make sure public access is protected, and that hunting and fishing rights are intact. Bears Ears is [prior to reduction] 1.5 million acres. Is that size the smallest area necessary? What does the local community think? The revision of Bears Ears is still larger than Zion and Bryce [national parks in southern Utah] combined. It’s still over 200,000 acres. And it will still be federal public land. I restored National Forest land to the Forest Service. I restored federal land designated as Wilderness Study Areas. I look through the lens of what is the smallest area that’s compatible with the object of protection.”

When I ask Zinke if he’s suggesting that hunting and fishing were restricted activities in the original monument designation, he says that his most vocal critics support monuments because they often prioritize backcountry recreation and non-motorized access, which he says limits access to “an elitist sort of hunter and fisherman.”

Then he tells me, “You will never make extremists happy. I’d say two things. One: they’ve never read the Antiquities Act. And two: there is no oil or gas in Bears Ears.”

But that second point is provably false. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that more than 100,000 acres of land that was previously in Bears Ears—and was removed by Trump’s decree—has been identified for oil and gas development. Now that the monument boundaries have been adjusted, this BLM ground qualifies for expedited leasing under new rules approved by Zinke. A number of other acres removed from Bears Ears have developable uranium reserves, according to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

The Secretary of the Interior notes that, while he recommends shrinking the Utah properties, he’s recommended the creation of three additional national monuments: a Civil War training camp for African-American soldiers in Kentucky, the home of assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area south of Glacier National Park in Montana. The land along the Rocky Mountains is considered the spiritual home of the Blackfeet Tribe.

Zinke’s opponents have suggested that his support of the Badger-Two Medicine, which is probably larger than the smallest-area-compatible argument can defend, as well as his decision to leave intact the nearly 500,000-acre Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument in Montana, might be politically motivated. They suspect Zinke has aspirations for either the governor’s mansion or a U.S. Senate seat—or maybe even a run for the U.S. presidency—and think he wants to shore up his home-state support to gird a political future.

Longtime Zinke watcher Andy Larsson isn’t sure Zinke could ever make a run for the White House, but he does think his extraction-first land policies resonate with fellow Montanans.

“I think [running for] governor is a potential for him,” Larsson told me. “Western-state blue-collar folks are tired of not being able to make a living using natural resources. The recent fires brought it to a boiling point, but the bottom line is that, in order to sustain America economically, something has to be grown, mined, or harvested. Tourism may feel good, but it is not a driver of our economy.”

Ryan Zinke Glacier national park
Zinke's "Don't Tread On Me" patch. Chris Sorenson


As a congressman, Zinke was roundly criticized for voting for a measure that would enable the sale or transfer of federal land to states or private entities. But later, he resigned as a delegate to the Republican National Convention after the party approved a platform plank supporting federal-land transfer to state or private groups. So I asked him to clarify his position.

“There are buildings and facilities that the government no longer uses that we could probably divest. And there may be isolated tracts of land that don’t have public access that we could look at disposing as long as the proceeds went to land with public access. As a policy, I am not an advocate for the sale or transfer of public lands. If there is an opportunity for a sale or trade, my philosophy is that you should always trade up. It has to be in the best interest of the public.”

But Zinke’s increasingly comfortable relationship with the energy sector worries critics, who suggest his instincts aren’t in all the public’s interest. The Secretary of the Interior told the oil and gas industry in July that he will expedite permitting for energy development on federal lands.

This trend of minimizing the non-consumptive use of public lands while he cozies up to the energy sector baffles many Montanans who watched Zinke’s political ascendency with a mixture of respect and support.

“As a state senator, Zinke was reliably moderate,” said Ryan Busse, chairman of the board of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and, like Zinke, a resident of Montana’s Flathead Valley. “Enough so that when he ran for congress, he got a lot of support from what I’d call the progressive hunting crowd. He supported land protections, he supported the Land and Water Conservation Fund. You could almost see the Roosevelt comparison if you squinted hard. But about two years ago, he changed. It’s almost like he got locked in a room with the oil and gas lobby and got brainwashed. Honestly, it’s hard to recognize Zinke now.”


This conversion from moderate to crusader is on full display in his treatment of sage grouse conservation plans. For most of my time in the West, the sage grouse has been a perennial candidate for listing under the endangered species act, and a potential listing has hung like the Sword of Damocles over everything from livestock grazing, mineral development, and motorized access across wide swaths of sagebrush country, most of it managed by the Bureau of Land Management. In 2015, after 10 years of negotiations, groups as diverse as ranchers, hunters, and environmentalists agreed on a management plan that gave everyone something and no group everything. The collaborative plan was hailed as a new way forward for contentious resource issues. Courts reviewed the agreement and concluded that it gave enough protections to sage grouse and sagebrush habitat to put off discussions of a listing.

But in September, Zinke announced his intention to amend the plan to loosen restrictions on surface disturbances. What’s the hurry, I ask Zinke. Why not give the plan time to work?

He says the intent of his sage grouse review is to give states more authority in land-use planning.

“The states are different and have different needs, and one size does not fit all when it comes to this sort of thing. We’re allowing state fish and wildlife experts, who often have more knowledge than federal planners, to have more input into the sage grouse plans. The previous plan was a land grab. Some 10 million acres was taken out of the public domain. This [revision] allows for all sorts of additional work, from assessing whether captive-breeding populations can make a difference to studying the effect of West Nile Virus on sage grouse to predator control and grazing management techniques.”

Something about that quote rings queer to me, so after our interview, I study Zinke’s action, which is contained in Secretarial Order 3353, “Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation and Cooperation with Western States.” The official intent of the order is to “improve sage grouse conservation by strengthening communication and collaboration between states and the federal government, with the shared goal of conserving and protecting sage grouse and its habitat while also ensuring that conservation efforts do not impede local economic opportunities.”

Here’s where Zinke’s 10-million-acre “public domain” citation comes in: That’s the amount of federally managed sage-grouse habitat that was off-limits to oil and gas development under the original conservation plan. Zinke’s secretarial order opens it to not only drilling but also mining, activities that acting BLM director Michael Nedd, who previously ran the bureau’s energy and minerals programs, says won’t impair sage grouse.

sage grouse
A strutting male sage grouse. USFWS


Because Zinke’s review of sage grouse planning is clearly designed to loosen regulations for energy development in the interior West, I ask the secretary about a term I’ve often seen attributed to both himself and Trump, along with many influential Republicans. It has to do with altering the Obama-era policy of national energy “independence,” meaning no importation of foreign oil, and instead pursuing a policy of energy “dominance,” which is widely understood to mean exporting energy produced in the U.S.

“How can you balance ‘energy dominance,’ which presumably means accelerating drilling on public lands, with all the other multiple uses your agencies are charged with managing?” I ask the secretary.

“There is a right place and a wrong place for energy development on public lands. But it’s better to produce energy right here at home, under reasonable regulations, than to watch it produced overseas without any regulations to enrich tyrants. I don’t want to send our kids to fight overseas over a resource that we have right here at home. Jobs matter. We have the ability for our public lands to drive an economy for the benefit of all Americans.”

His one-word solution to mitigating the impacts of energy development on public land: “reclamation.”

If that’s too vague and situational for Zinke critics, who want federal land policies to default to environmental protection instead of industrial allowance, it’s okay with Zinke supporter Andy Larsson.

“A lot of us who live on or near federal lands have felt the land-protection pendulum has swung too far,” Larsson said. “Wolves ate our wildlife. Forests grew into a tinderbox. We’ve seen the worst of extraction, and it definitely can leave a mark. But done right, there can be sustainable harvest and conscientious environmental practices on our public lands. Most of the people who work on federal land as loggers or miners or grazers also recreate on federal land, as hunters or fishermen or campers and hikers. They love where they live and want to know how to utilize the resources and keep its health and beauty. I want to think that’s what Zinke is aiming at.”


But the number of hunters and anglers, regardless of whether they pursue their activities on federal land or not, is shrinking, not growing.

A 2016 report from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service showed the number of license-buying hunters in the U.S. plummeted from 2.2 million from 2011 numbers, a decline of 18 percent. The drop affects everything from the ability of state wildlife agencies to manage species to the amount of excise-tax revenue that funds national wildlife refuges and hunter education programs.

It’s an issue with a clear problem and a clear solution: make more hunters. Because it seems the sort of battle a warrior can understand and fight, I ask Zinke what Department of Interior is doing to turn the trend.

“Some of the loss [of hunters] is because we’ve lost public access,” he responded. “When you close roads, you lose hunters. When you emphasize backcountry hunting over more accessible hunting, that limits the ability for most people to participate. You lose grandparents, dads, disabled veterans. When you make the process to secure permits to use our public lands cumbersome, you lose participation. America’s hunter legacy has historically been a family thing. I want to bring family events, as well as shooting and hunting opportunities, back to our national wildlife refuges.”


Our time in Glacier Park over (largely because the snow just won’t quit falling, and we’re starting to get wet and cold) I jump in the car with Zinke and Interior press secretary, Heather Swift, for the drive to Whitefish. If there’s a place in the West that most reflects the transition of federal lands from boom-and-bust resource extraction to sustainable use, it’s Whitefish, and the forestlands around it.

Zinke is fond of pointing out that when he was in high school, playing football and basketball for the Bulldogs of Whitefish High School, rival Libby High was Class AA powerhouse, among the largest schools in Montana. The town’s economy, which grew up around silver and lead mining on public land, was by the 1970s fueled by timber taken off the Forest Service lands all around it. The J. Neils plywood mill ran three shifts and employed some 1,000 people at its peak. The Libby High School mascot was—and still is—the Loggers. That was the boom time, and it’s apparently the Libby that Zinke remembers.

Today, the logging industry is in shambles. Environmental regulations did their part, but so did overcutting public land. A soft-wood lumber deal that made Canadian wood more affordable was the final nail that doomed northwest Montana’s timber economy. Libby High School was downgraded to Class A and is now on the cusp of going to Class B. The town has become one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites as regulators try to clean up cancer-causing asbestos produced by a local vermiculite mine. The lumber mill is shuttered. Today, Libby is busted.

But 100 miles down the road in Zinke’s hometown, the economy flourishes. Whitefish was originally called “Stumptown,” for the old-growth timber that fueled its early years. Now, it’s a glittering example of the visitation economy, fueled partly by a world-class ski hill that’s built on U.S. Forest Service land above town, partly by the proximity of Glacier National Park, and partly by year-round recreation on public land and waters. The residential and commercial real estate markets are booming. Fancy new restaurants open monthly, and celebrity sightings are a sort of local currency. Whitefish is booming.

If Zinke needs a reminder of the economic power of the sustainable use of public land—the winter skiers and snowmobilers, the summer hikers and anglers, the fall bear and elk hunters—then he doesn’t have to look far outside the house he retains in Whitefish. He can find the same trend in towns like Durango, Lander, Pocatello, Spearfish, Walla Walla, and Moab, towns surrounded by public land that seem to be leaning into their future as they learn to leverage the sustainable visitation economy based on accessible federal land. The promise is, if not a boom, at least not the bust that inevitably follows.

But Zinke often seems caught in a time warp, waxing nostalgic to a time when mining, logging, and drilling on federal land outside town fueled local economies. Think Casper, Wyo., Williston, North Dakota, and Farmington, New Mexico. This is the Interior Department version of Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” I’m about to ask Zinke whether, less than a year into his administration, resource extraction instead of Rooseveltian conservation will define his stint as Secretary of the Interior.

But as we pull onto U.S. Highway 2 outside Glacier Park’s entrance, an orange-and-black Burlington Northern Santa Fe locomotive idles on a railroad siding, waiting to pull its conveyance of freight cars up and over Marias Pass. In the sifting snow, with a backdrop of black-boughed spruce trees, the sight is Instagram-worthy.

At the wheel, Swift calls our attention to the train.

“Classic,” she says.

“It would look even better if that was a coal train,” says Zinke as we pull onto the highway and head west.