ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK — U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke gripped two hiking poles, citing a gimpy knee from his years as a Navy SEAL and a college football lineman, as he wandered deeper into Rocky Mountain National Park on Sunday.
“There’s no reason a trail can’t begin on Forest Service property and go into a park and end up on (Bureau of Land Management) property,” he said, making his way from the the park’s Glacier Gorge Trailhead toward Alberta Falls on a hike with Colorado Politics.
“That’s part of the reorganization, looking at ecosystem management, in addition to people management, to take advantage of property that is underused,” he said.
The reorganization he spoke of has even bigger ramifications for Colorado, as Zinke presses ahead with a plan to move the headquarters of the Department of the Interior’s BLM and possibly other agencies out of Washington, D.C.
He talked about the advantages Colorado enjoys as Grand Junction lobbies to land the BLM headquarters. He cited the Western Slope city’s good schools, affordable cost of living and high quality of life.
But most of all, it has proximity. On the Western Slope, Zinke noted, BLM headquarters staff would be closer to the vast Colorado, Utah and Wyoming properties it manages.
“If you’re a military commander, it makes sense to put your headquarters next to the fight,” he said.
Interior is expected to begin compiling a short list of possible BLM headquarters locations for over the next few months.
Of the 245 million acres BLM administers, almost all of it is in the western states, thousands of miles from Washington, including 8.3 million acres in Colorado.
BLM isn’t the only Washington prize Colorado stands to gain, Zinke said, naming the U.S. Geological Survey as a possibility because of its world-class research facilities. He singled out the Colorado School of Mines in Golden and Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
Another goal of the reorganization, he said, is not only to better connect trails and make public lands more accessible, but also to better connect the missions of the various agencies.
Metro Denver is already considered the federal government’s Western hub, but the metro area’s high cost of living works against it.
Already, the 623-acre Denver Federal Center campus in Lakewood houses offices for 28 federal agencies, including regional offices of several Interior divisions like BLM and the Geological Survey. The number of agencies that maintain offices there might work to the advantage of Grand Junction.
Zinke acknowledged that if Democrats win the House or Senate in November’s midterm elections, it could upend much of the Trump administration’s agenda, but not necessarily the reorganization plan, because of its bipartisan allies.
Both of Colorado’s U.S. senators — Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat Michael Bennet — as well as Obama-era Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, support moving BLM’s HQ west.
But many Democrats question the idea, seeing it as part of what U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico has called the administration’s “continued attacks on America’s public lands,” including last year’s downsizing of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. The two areas are mostly administered by BLM.
Before his interview/hike with Colorado Politics, Zinke spoke with reporters at the Beaver Meadows Visitors Center near the eastern entrance of the park about the need for money to address the $11.7 billion backlog of maintenance inside the national parks. About half that backlog is roads.
He, Bennet and Gardner support the proposed Restore Our Parks Act to steer oil and gas (as well as wind, solar and geothermal) money toward repairs.
Rocky Mountain National Park is the fourth most-visited park in the U.S., last year attracting more than 12.4 million visitors. The park has an $84 million maintenance backlog, said park Superintendent Darla Sidles, who joined Zinke on Sunday.
“We have lots of needs, including campground upgrades, the five visitor centers, the campground amphitheaters — there are lots of things in need of repair,” she said.
The Restore Our Parks Act would establish a restoration fund by steering up to $1.3 billion each of the next five years toward maintenance and repairs.
Gardner and Bennet also are still fighting to restore the administration’s proposed 90 recent cut to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal parks and outdoor recreation program that also draws money from offshore leases.
Zinke insisted Sunday that the two goals were not in competition.
As a U.S. House member from Montana before Trump’s appointment, Zinke defended the LWCF and Sunday he said he still supports it. He said the bipartisan momentum is behind the Restore Our Parks effort and supporters of conservation and the outdoors should recognize that opportunity.
“The time is now,” Zinke said of the Restore Our Parks bill. “The president is a builder, and we need to rebuild our parks.”
The LWCF fund was cut amid a broad range of proposed cuts, as Trump faces political pressure over government spending and budget deficits.
Time is running out to restore the LWCF. The cut will be enshrined in next year’s budget if Congress doesn’t pass a bill to restore it by the end of September.
Bennet is expected to make an announcement about the LWCF around a Yampa River fishing outing with reporters on Tuesday.
Like other Trump Cabinet members, Zinke has faced allegations and investigations.
Besides the controversial decision to shrink two national monuments in Utah, he has had his travel and alleged conflicts of interest in the press.
In July, the Interior Department’s inspector general opened an investigation into whether Zinke violated conflict of interest rules in a land deal involving a foundation he founded and David Lesar, chairman of Halliburton, an oil-and-gas-industry services company. Zinke has acknowledged meeting Lesar and others in the matter but denies any conflict.
The Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based conservation group that has ferociously opposed Zinke’s policies, issued a list of questions for the secretary on Saturday.
The center wanted Zinke to respond to its questions about why the agency redacted information from a BLM report that said removing federal protections could endanger cultural resources at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Zinke brushed aside the center’s allegations along the trail Sunday.
“They have zero credibility,” Zinke said of the Center for Western Priorities. “If they had bothered to read (the report) rather than cherry-pick it, maybe they’d learn something.”
The redaction was standard for that type of government document, covered by the Freedom of Information Act for deliberative documents. The substance of the document was unaltered by blocking out some parts, the Interior Department maintains.
Administration officials argue that the reduction of the Utah monuments, from the start, was about allowing surrounding areas to benefit from timber, mining, cattle grazing and other operations. The controversial move was requested by elected leaders in Utah who thought the government overreached.
The secretary has been a frequent guest in Colorado. So has his deputy secretary, David Bernhardt, who grew up in Rifle and practiced law in Denver.
Over the weekend, Zinke met with the Southern Ute tribe in southwest Colorado, and Monday he’s expected to huddle with legislative leaders and energy industry officials in Denver.
Next Friday night, he’s expected to speak at the Steamboat Institute’s gathering of conservative thinkers, talkers and policy makers in Steamboat Springs.
Last year at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver, Zinke made news when he announced, “The war on American energy is over.”