Interview with Ryan Zinke: Angry people ‘don’t want to look at the truth’

Matt Stensland
Steamboat Pilot & Today

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Some people said it would never happen.

Even those within my journalism circles said there was no way U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, as a member of President Donald Trump’s administration, would agree to be interviewed by a journalist in a small community like Steamboat Springs.

Zinke agreed to a 30-minute interview with the Steamboat Pilot & Today, and he even allowed video to be recorded.

Zinke, who is in town to be the keynote speaker at the Steamboat Institute’s Freedom Conference, is a controversial figure. Critics were holding a rally on the Routt County Courthouse lawn Friday evening.

Zinke and I planned to talk during a hike in the woods but ended up chatting at The Steamboat Grand because of the 30-minute time window.

I was first expecting to meet his director of communications and maybe even undergo a quick security screening.

I grabbed coffee for myself and his staffer. Then, I spotted a familiar face. In the hallway was Zinke, wearing a fishing shirt and pants with Merrell shoes, and the man needed coffee. He took my spare cup, and we headed to the owners’ lounge to chat.

So what does a Steamboat journalist ask Zinke? I solicited ideas from friends, family and coworkers.

With haze obscuring the Colorado landscape and Zinke wearing a Yosemite Fire ball cap, it was clear what was on his mind.

I didn’t even ask a question before he started talking about the nation’s wildfires. He had plans to spend the remainder of Friday at the Silver Creek Fire burning southeast of Steamboat Springs.

“It is clear that seasons have gotten longer. The temperatures have gotten higher,” Zinke said. “It is indisputable that the dead and dying timber has been a driving force of the scale of these fires. … It is a perfect storm where, whether you’re a believer in climate change or not, it doesn’t relieve the responsibility of government managing the forest.”

I also wanted to discover Zinke’s level of self-awareness.

Q. Are you aware of how your critics perceive you, and why do you think you’re perceived that way?

A. “There’s a lot of angry people out there, and quite frankly, they don’t want to look at truth, and it’s just a series of attacks without merit. At the heart of it, you do right, and you fear no one. I’m passionate about public lands. I’m passionate about never selling them, never transferring it, but we have to manage it, and there has been a consequence I believe of almost environmental terrorism, where we’re limiting access, shutting down roads, not having the ability to remove dead, dying trees. It comes at a cost.”

Longtime Steamboat Pilot & Today journalist Tom Ross, who recently retired, fed me a great question for Zinke.

Q. You are a fifth-generation Montana resident, former congressman, decorated Navy SEAL veteran and an outdoorsman. Describe your favorite wild place in Montana and what it means to you?

A. “Probably the Bob Marshall Wilderness. I grew up in the foothills of Glacier (National Park). I enjoy Glacier, but I think the Bob Marshall is a little more remote. A lot of fire damage in the Bob Marshall.”

The second part of Ross’s question:

Q. Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah have recently been shrunk in size by the federal government. Do you think they are just as special as that place you described in Montana?

A. “… The revised boundaries are still larger than Zion and Bryce Canyon combined. There was not one square inch of federal land that was removed from any protection. The difference is this: Utah matters. So, when every member of the Utah delegation, every member, is against that monument. The governor is against the monument.”

This question came from a friend of mine who works for a local outdoor gear company.

Q. What’s it like to work for President Donald Trump? Do you think President Trump is of sound mind and judgement, enough to be running our country?

A. “President Trump is a businessman, and it’s really easy to figure out the direction where the president is going, because in the White House, he has a huge chalkboard — you know, whiteboard — that has campaign promises. And many of those campaign promises are crossed off.”

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