Alaska’s U.S. senators bemoaned the resignation Saturday of President Donald Trump’s Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, calling him an advocate of the state’s priorities to develop its resources and unlock federal lands.
For almost two years, Zinke — who is beset by multiple investigations into his conduct in office and real estate dealings in Montana — headed a department with an outsized role in Alaska, home to sweeping tracts of federal lands that constitute nearly two-thirds of the state.
Shortly after assuming office, Zinke signed an order in Anchorage aiming to increase oil production in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, declaring that the path for U.S. "energy dominance is a path through the great state of Alaska.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan on Saturday said Zinke assembled an “all-star leadership team” consisting of Alaskans such as Joe Balash, assistant secretary of land and minerals management.
“Over the past two years, Alaska has had no better friend than Ryan Zinke," Sullivan said. “He joins the ranks of Gov. Wally Hickel as one of the great secretaries of Interior.”
Sullivan and fellow Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski praised Zinke, a Navy SEAL veteran of combat tours, for:
• Promoting what Murkowski described as responsible oil development in Alaska, including in the long off-limits coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
• Approving a land swap to allow a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, to give the village of King Cove safe and reliable access to emergency medical care.
• Eliminating the maintenance backlog at national parks.
“After years of frustration with the Department, (Zinke) came in and took a very different approach — he listened to us, built a great team, and worked with us to advance our priorities,” Murkowski said.
Neither of the senators’ statements mentioned the investigations involving Zinke.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy also weighed in, saying he met with Zinke in Washington, D.C., earlier this week and was impressed with his grasp of Alaska issues.
“I want to express my deepest gratitude to Secretary Zinke for all he has done for Alaska,” Dunleavy said in a statement.
Meanwhile, conservation groups slammed Zinke, calling him a danger to the environment. But they warned his possible replacement, deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, may be no better in their eyes.
Nicole Ghio, with Friends of the Earth, said Zinke “hacked away at America’s public lands” and said his “giveaways to big oil” must be reversed.
“With an average of nearly one federal investigation opened into his conduct in office per month, Zinke’s highly questionable ethics have finally caught up with him," Ghio said.
Bernhardt could be worse for the environment and public lands in Alaska, said Adam Kolton, with Alaska Wilderness League.
After Congress last year agreed to open the refuge’s coastal plain to oil development, the Interior Department is planning a lease sale there and considering a proposal for seismic exploration.
Despite his legal work on the ANWR issue, Bernhardt “has refused to recuse himself from any of the vital permitting and environmental review decisions for this iconic landscape," Kolton said.
“We urge President Trump to name a new secretary of Interior who would restore not only integrity and honor to the office but deliver on the conservation leadership Americans expect and that future generations deserve,” Kolton said in a statement.