WASHINGTON —Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s policies are an “unprecedented” attack on public lands and the environment, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said Tuesday.
Zinke explained to the committee President Donald Trump’s 2019 Interior budget request of $11.7 billion, down from the $13.5 billion budget for fiscal 2017 that has been continued into 2018.
But Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the committee, pressed Zinke about his alleged use of public funds for travel on private jets and to replace doors in his office at a cost of $138,000, charges that are under investigation by his department’s inspector general.
“I never took a private jet anywhere,” Zinke said at the hearing. “I resent the fact of your insults, and I resent the fact that you mislead.”
Cantwell also focused on what she called the Trump administration’s “unlawful exercises of presidential or secretarial power.”
“Over the past year, the Trump administration has overseen an attack on our public lands and on our nation’s strong conservation ethic that I believe is unprecedented,” Cantwell said.
The department announced that it would consider expanding offshore drilling leases in public waters in January, and internal agency documents show that the department was focused on the potential for oil and gas exploration at Bears Ears National Monument, a protected Utah site.
Zinke’s actions represent an “abandonment” of his stewardship of the country’s public resources, Cantwell said, adding that Zinke had “undermined the public trust” by gutting key conservation programs and prioritizing energy development “at any cost.”
“Many of these actions are not popular with the public and are legally being challenged in court,” she said. “I believe these actions will ultimately be overturned as unlawful exercises of presidential or secretarial power.”
She then turned to what she called an “absurd” decision — raising national park fees, including entrance fees at Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks. She said the higher fees will hurt Washington businesses and communities.
Zinke said discounted rates at national parks for the elderly and veterans, among others, are hurting the parks.
“When you have a park like Rainier, the money that they receive coming in the front gate, I want to make sure more of it goes to that park superintendent so he has flexibility in how he spends it,” Zinke said. “American parks belong to the public and everyone should have access.”