President Trump announced Saturday that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will be leaving the administration.
Zinke -- whose department administers millions of acres in Colorado -- has been the target of a continuing Justice Department investigation into whether he used his position for personal gain.
Trump made the announcement in a tweet, saying the former Montana congressman "has accomplished much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation."
Secretary of the Interior @RyanZinke will be leaving the Administration at the end of the year after having served for a period of almost two years. Ryan has accomplished much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation.......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 15, 2018
Zinke has been the target of a continuing Justice Department investigation into whether he used his position for personal gain.
Trump had earlier said he was not seeking to fire Zinke, but would continue to review the allegations against him and the ongoing allegations.
Zinke continues to fight the allegations that he has been involved in any wrongdoing, saying he has cooperated with Interior's inspector general over allegations he is involved in a real estate deal involving David Lesar, the chairman of oil services giant Halliburton.
Zinke was the chairman of a Montana-based foundation that is working with Lesar and other developers on a land development deal near Zinke's hometown of Whitefish.
Zinke has rejected reports that he is still involved in leading the foundation after becoming Interior secretary. He provided evidence of his stepping down from the foundation, leaving its direction up to his wife, Lolita.
The inspector general, who referred Zinke to the Justice Department for an investigation, was also looking into reports that the secretary decided not to grant two Native tribes in Connecticut approval to build a casino following a lobbying push by two Nevada Republican lawmakers to block the approval. Zinke's decision came under scrutiny as it appeared his decision was swayed by the lawmakers, implying it may have been political in nature.
The inspector general was also looking into Zinke's improper use of taxpayer funds to pay for personal trips with his wife.
Trump, who named a new acting chief of staff on Friday, said on Twitter he will name Zinke's replacement next week.
.......The Trump Administration will be announcing the new Secretary of the Interior next week.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 15, 2018
It appeared likely Saturday that Zinke's chief deputy, David Bernhardt, a man with Colorado roots, will step in as acting secretary until Trump nominates a permanent successor, who would be subject to Senate confirmation.
Bernhardt, who grew up in Rifle, formerly was an attorney and lobbyist for Denver-based law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. He also headed up Trump's Interior Department transition operations before the Republican president took office.
And from 2001 to 2009 under former President George W. Bush, Bernhardt worked in the Interior Department in various roles, including solicitor and deputy chief of staff to then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton (also a Coloradan).
Bernhardt won Senate confirmation as deputy secretary by a 53-43 vote in July 2017.
Zinke is the second Cabinet head with an energy and environment portfolio to resign after Scott Pruitt, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who was also plagued by a scandal involving the misuse of public money and inappropriate travel.
Environmentalists cheered the news of Zinke's exit.
“Ryan Zinke will go down as the most anti-conservation Interior secretary in our nation’s history," Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Denver-based environmentalist Center for Western Priorities, said Saturday. "By following President Trump’s marching orders to attack our public lands, Secretary Zinke oversaw an unprecedented and likely illegal attack on America’s national monuments. Surrounding himself with former lobbyists, it quickly became clear that Ryan Zinke was a pawn for the oil and gas industry."
“Ryan Zinke’s tenure at the Department of Interior was a disaster for public lands of historic proportions," said Chris Saeger, executive director of the Montana-based Western Values Project, which has frequently challenged the secretary. "The public and Congress should continue their commitment to vigilant oversight over the ongoing ethical abuses at Interior in order to repair its reputation.”
In Colorado, the Interior Department looms large as the overseer of federal lands across much of the state, including some of its most productive oil and gas areas as well as national treasurers like Rocky Mountain National Park, Mesa Verde and Great Sand Dunes.
Interior's Bureau of Land Management alone administers 8.3 million acres in Colorado, much of it on the Western Slope. Interior also includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service.
Interior is one of Colorado's largest non-military federal employers. 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 U.S. Geological Survey.
Zinke's exit leaves unclear the status of his initiative to relocate some Interior offices, possibly including the headquarters of the BLM, to western states. Grand Junction has been touted by Colorado officials -- including both of its U.S. senators -- as a possible future home for BLM.
Zinke came to lead the Interior Department after a brief stint in the House representing Montana’s at-large congressional district from 2015 to 2017. He also served two terms in the Montana legislature.
Before that, he served two tours in Iraq as a Navy SEAL. He projected a cowboy image, drawing attention on his first day at the Interior Department by commuting there on horseback.
Overseeing the country’s 500 million acres of public land, including 59 national parks, Zinke quickly worked to play a major role in implementing Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda.
The Interior Department has offered millions of acres of public land for oil and gas leases. The Trump administration tried to make energy development easier, revoking a policy that instructed the BLM to consider whether its actions contribute to climate change.
In one of his first acts, Zinke repealed a Obama administration moratorium on new coal-mining leases on federal land.
He proposed a massive plan expanding offshore oil and gas leasing in nearly all federal waters. The plan drew outrage from coastal lawmakers and governors from both parties, and Zinke has since suggested he may scale back the proposal when Interior finalizes it next year.
Zinke also drew criticism for moves that seemed political.
After issuing his offshore drilling plan, Zinke quickly declared he planned to exempt drilling off the coast of Florida when Republican Gov. Rick Scott complained about it.
Democratic critics said Zinke acted prematurely, and arbitrarily, to give Florida reprieve before anyplace else because Scott was running for a competitive Senate race where environmental policy was paramount.
Zinke oversaw another key Trump administration priority: rolling back national monument designations made by Democratic predecessors.
Trump, shortly after his inauguration, ordered Zinke to undertake a review of 27 national monuments created since 1996.
Last December, Trump, at the recommendation of Zinke, signed proclamations shrinking Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, framing the decision as a sharp rebuke of former President Barack Obama's use of executive authority to set aside public land for protection.
Multiple environmental groups and Native American tribes have sued the administration over the move, arguing Trump doesn't have the power to shrink the size of monuments so extensively.
He also worked to reform the Endangered Species Act, following complaints by GOP lawmakers who view the law as cumbersome and restrictive to developers.
Rules proposed by the Interior Department would change how the Fish and Wildlife Service identifies threatened and endangered species — requiring a stricter burden of proof — and how it designates critical habitats for those animals.
And in September, the Trump administration proposed to weaken a 2016 Obama-era regulation targeting venting and flaring, or burning, of methane from oil and gas operations on federal lands. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is more potent than carbon dioxide.
Late in his tenure, Zinke became sensitive to critics who say the department was not doing enough to promote conservation and renewable energy sources.
Zinke in March proposed creating a new Public Lands Infrastructure Fund of up to $18 billion over 10 years for maintenance and improvements in national parks, wildlife refuges, and Bureau of Indian Education schools. The proposal earned bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, as members were eager to see a funding mechanism to fix pipeline leaks, broken bathrooms, and potholed roads at America's national parks. There are pending bills in Congress to implement a variation of the plan.
In October, Zinke banned mining on 30,000 acres of federal lands near Yellowstone National Park, a move that earned bipartisan support.
And in recent months, Zinke hyped the Interior Department’s push for offshore wind development.
Just this Friday, Zinke hailed a record offshore wind lease sale off the coast of Massachusetts, trumpeting the success as evidence that its emphasis of U.S. energy dominance includes renewable energy along with fossil fuels.
But Zinke’s personal exploits are what eventually brought him down.
In the weeks before his resignation, Zinke drew attention for harshly attacking Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., who is set to lead the House Natural Resources Committee next Congress, accusing him of alcoholism and calling on him to resign from Congress.
Zinke was responding to an op-ed Grijalva wrote calling on the Interior head to resign because of the numerous ethics allegations investigations he is facing.
Grijalva has pledged to initiate his own investigations against Zinke if he takes control of the Natural Resources Committee in January.
Mark Harden of Colorado Politics contributed.