Secretary Ryan Zinke may be done with the Interior Department, but he’s likely not done with Congress.
House Natural Resources ranking member Raúl M. Grijalva said in an interview that he’s “sure” Zinke will be called before the committee to testify about his time running the department, specifically about the department’s role in the shrinking of national monuments.
“I’m sure that it’ll happen [because] there’s going to be situations, particularly around monument shrinkage,” said Grijalva, who is expected to become chairman of the committee when Democrats take control in January.
At President Donald Trump’s direction to review expansions of national monuments during previous administrations, the Interior Department recommended in August of 2017 that Trump modify his predecessors’ actions to reduce the size of multiple national monuments, removing federal protections for millions of acres in the West and potentially freeing them up for oil and gas extraction.
In September 2017, Trump acted on those recommendations by ordering Bears Ears National Monument be reduced from 1.35 million acres to 228,800 acres, and the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument become three monuments totaling 1 million acres.
Both monuments are in Utah. Bears Ears was designated by President Barack Obama and Grand Staircase-Escalante was established by President Bill Clinton.
In March, department materials released via court order to The New York Times reportedly showed oil and gas interests playing a key role in the monument shrinkage. In July, accidentally unredacted documents from the monument review released by the department in response to public records requests appeared to show officials skeptical of evidence that public lands were helpful for tourism or helped in uncovering archeological artifacts.
Grijalva has sent the department multiple letters on the monument reduction. And now, even though Zinke is leaving amid allegations of ethics violations, he still wants answers.
“I don’t think his resignation absolves the department of decisions that were driven and that were made and many of us believe was a circle of conflict,” Grijalva said. “He was the [department’s] cheerleader for two years, and as such, questions particularly around Bears Ears and the monument shrinkage, how it happened, who are the stakeholders, who did you meet with, why was this ignored and why was that included. I think those kinds of areas I think Zinke needs to answer some questions.”
The Interior Department has not responded to requests for comment.
If Grijalva invites Zinke, it could turn into a public mud fight. On Nov. 30, when Grijalva wrote an op-ed for USA Today calling on Zinke to resign, the secretary responded on Twitter by suggesting the Arizona Democrat has a drinking problem and asserting he improperly paid a former staffer to hide allegations of excessive drinking and workplace hostility.
“It’s hard for him to think straight from the bottom of the bottle,” Zinke said in the tweet. “He should resign and pay back the taxpayers for the hush money and the tens of thousands of dollars he forced my department to spend investigating unfounded allegations.”
In 2015, Grijalva paid $48,000 to a former staffer who left after three months, following allegations he created a hostile workplace environment and was intoxicated on the job. In May, the Office of Congressional Ethics referred the case to the House Ethics Committee, which in a letter dated Dec. 14 cleared him of wrongdoing.
Grijalva said he believes inviting Zinke to testify may provoke a similar response. However, he said he will consider prior to such an invite whether everyone on the committee is on board, insisting unity will be key during oversight because “on a lot of these issues, we’re going to be at the point of the spear.”
“I don’t want to make this, to be contrived, or for people to think this is, ‘Zinke versus Grijalva.’ It isn’t,” he said. “I don’t want to give that conflict any more attention than it has.”