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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is resigning, the White House announced on Saturday, ending his nearly two-year tenure as he faces multiple ethics investigations. In a Twitter post, President Trump said that Zinke would leave at the end of the year, and thanked him for his service.
“I love working for the President and am incredibly proud of all the good work we’ve accomplished together,” Zinke said. “However, after 30 years of public service, I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations.”
Zinke, a retired Navy SEAL and former U.S. representative from Montana who touted his bona fides as a conservationist, took office in March 2017. He quickly earned the ire of environmental advocates with a series of decisions that they said favored drilling and mining over nature and outdoor recreation. His office offered 12.8 million acres of oil and gas leases for sale in 2017 (triple the average during the Obama administration, according to an analysis by the New York Times); proposed raising high-season entry fees at 17 popular national parks to $70 (it later nixed the idea after public protest); and joined with the Department of Commerce to propose rolling back protections for threatened species.
Zinke’s most controversial decision came last September, when he recommended that the President shrink the boundaries of 10 national monuments, the most prominent of which were Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. The action triggered multiple lawsuits, including one from a coalition of five Native American tribes that is still ongoing.
However, Zinke’s actions as secretary were largely overshadowed by allegations of ethical and financial impropriety that led the DOI’s inspector general to investigate his conduct. Among the issues were a land deal involving Halliburton and a foundation run by Zinke’s family; a decision to deny two Connecticut tribes permission to open a casino, allegedly at the behest of MGM lobbyists and two Nevada lawmakers; and his wife’s use of federal vehicles, which the inspector general said violated department policy. In October, the Washington Post reported that the inspector general’s office had referred one of the cases to the Department of Justice for possible criminal prosecution.
In Utah, epicenter for Zinke’s most controversial policies, politicians and activists had a mixed response to his resignation. Rep. Rob Bishop praised him as a leader who “had a vision of a better future,” while Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Legal Director Stephen Bloch said that Utah’s federally-owned open spaces “are unquestionably worse off because of Zinke’s corrupt and disastrous tenure as Secretary of the Interior.”
Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt will step in as acting director of the Department of the Interior until Congress confirms a replacement. Bernhardt, a lawyer and former oil and gas lobbyist, led President Trump’s transition team for the department.