Student Op-Eds

The Future of American Land Conservation under the Trump Administration

David DeBole ’20 – Inside Politics Participant


An era of environmental protection ended when Donald Trump took the oath of office. Barack Obama set aside over 548 million acres of habitat for federal protection. He has without a doubt established a legacy in environmental reform. On the contrary, the Trump Administration has already shown signs of a step back from this legacy. The nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA is alarming to environmentalists as Pruitt has already established his notoriety in suits against EPA activism.

Furthermore, the most recent Republican platform calls for a transfer of power over federal land to the states. A policy analysis done by Ryan O’Toole examined this idea. He found that this transfer of power had no effect on the management of land. This insinuates that state power would only complicate further protection. A complex system for public lands would be disastrous in today’s climate. This includes a crumbling National Parks System. It has reported the need for $12.5 billion in infrastructure projects.

So, what new official can we look to so that federal lands stay protected and in proper condition? The Interior Secretary has significant power in land conservation. Despite this, the pick for this cabinet position has gotten far less media coverage than the EPA nomination. The Department of the Interior presides over agencies like the National Park System. Whomever has this position wields a lot of power over future land protection. And, who is the new Interior Secretary? Republican Congressman from Montana: Ryan Zinke.

Congressman Zinke has an unorthodox background. He played football at the University of Oregon. He served in the US Navy SEALs from 1986 to 2008. After that, he entered politics on the state level and then made his run for Congress. He is an avid outdoorsman, participating in both fishing and hunting in the state of Montana.

As a Congressman, Zinke has shown that he will break ranks with Republicans on land ownership. He was on the GOP platform writing committee but he abandoned the project over its advocacy for state ownership of federal land. Further, he opposed a bill that would allow states to buy U.S. Forest Service land for timber production. He has shown repeatedly that he will fight for federal ownership of public land. This is good news for environmentalists who fear land degradation at the state level.

Congressman Zinke is a proclaimed Theodore Roosevelt Republican. Within the concept of land use, this means the practice of utilitarian conservation. This is the conservative use of resources so that they can serve the greatest good for generations. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt said the following:


“It is time for us now as a nation to exercise the same reasonable foresight in dealing with our great natural resources that would be shown by any prudent man in conserving and widely using the property which contains the assurance of well-being for himself and his children.”


Zinke’s voting record has reflected this concept of utilitarian conservatism. He has advocated for heightened use of fossil fuel extraction on public lands. He wants the United States to be energy independent. This includes solar and wind energy, but fossil fuels would also have a contribution.

It is hard to pinpoint the line that Zinke draws for when resource extraction is allowed. He opposed mining in Yellowstone but recently he has supported building a copper mine on Montana’s Smith River. Theresa Pierno, President and CEO of National Parks Conservation Association, spoke against him stating that his stance on state control of energy development on the parks is dangerous.

Ultimately, Zinke was confirmed by a 68 to 31 vote on March 1, 2017. So, what does this mean for the future of land conservation?

It is likely that Congressman Zinke will take infrastructure problems head on. He said that he will push President Trump to focus on National Parks improvement. That being said, it is also likely that resource extraction will increase in the future. He has advocated for projects like the Keystone Pipeline but federal lands will stay in the hands of the US Government. If Ryan Zinke is anything like Theodore Roosevelt, he will use his leadership to find balance in land conservation and it is hopeful that his experience in the Navy and in politics will help him pursue this goal.

Former Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, believed that the future is bright. She said, “I am optimistic that my successor will quickly realize how important this work is.”  At the time of that quote, Jewell did not know who her successor would be. But, if the importance of land conservation remains with Congressman Zinke, he will undoubtedly prove to be an intelligible leader.


The views and opinions expressed are the students and the organizations whom they represent and do not necessarily represent the views of The Eisenhower Institute or Gettysburg College.