Interior Department’s return to the ‘Robber Baron’ years

In 1921, President Warren G. Harding, R, at the behest of the oil barons who financed his election, appointed Albert Bacon Fall to be his secretary of the Interior. Fall had vowed not only to transfer all public lands to private interests, but also to abolish the Interior Department altogether. As a Cabinet member, he set out to dismantle the conservation ethos that Republican President Theodore Roosevelt had brought to Washington and to open federal fossil fuels and other resources to unfettered development, effectively handing the keys to Interior to his oil buddies. “All natural resources should be made as easy of access as possible to the present generation,” he once said.

Ryan Zinke, the current Interior secretary, likes to compare himself to Roosevelt. Yet he far more closely resembles Fall. Fall’s easy-access creed is reflected in Zinke’s systematic evisceration of environmental protections, a crusade clearly laid out in the Interior Department’s recently leaked four-year strategic plan, and in its “review” of department actions that allegedly “burden domestic energy.” The former, from which all mentions of the “climate” have been stricken, provides a blueprint for private exploitation of public lands, while the latter provides an extensive list of the energy-specific rules now on the chopping block.

The extent of the planned rollbacks is overwhelming, affecting every agency under Interior, from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Within the Bureau of Land Management alone, Zinke is working to abolish, delay or weaken 10 rules and land-use guidance policies.

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