Ryan Zinke should forgive Californians for their skepticism as he confers with Gov. Jerry Brown on his first visit to California as Donald Trump’s Interior secretary.
The former state senator and congressman from Montana arrives in Sacramento representing a president who denies climate change, advocates a revival of coal and urges that more federal lands be opened to greater resource extraction. All of that is anathema to the views of most Californians.
And yet we cannot help but hope that Zinke will become an advocate for the environment. He did, after all, ride a horse to work on his first day as Interior secretary. Gimmicky, yes. But it sent a message. And Zinke grew up next to Glacier National Park and sees himself as being in the mold of Theodore Roosevelt, one of this nation’s great champions of wilderness.
Zinke has California roots, having married a woman from the Central Coast, graduated from University of San Diego, and been stationed in San Diego during his service as a Navy SEAL. On this visit to California, Zinke should expect that Brown will discuss the existential threat posed by climate change and the impact of sea level rise on the state’s water delivery system.
Brown will want to discuss Interior’s role in his proposal to alter the state’s plumbing by constructing twin tunnels to divert water from the main channel of the Sacramento River in the Delta south to the Silicon Valley, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
No doubt an elephant in the governor’s conference room will be the humble Delta smelt, a pinky-sized creature that faces extinction. Zinke must not buy into the claim by some farming interests that the environment must be sacrificed so their crops can be irrigated. Whether the tunnels are built or not, Californians need water and a healthy environment. But there are many issues beyond the Delta for Zinke’s consideration:
Klamath: In its final days, George W. Bush’s administration helped resolve a long-running water war among farmers, Indians and a utility, PacifiCorp, by reaching an agreement to remove four obsolete hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River in California and Oregon. However, Congress has refused to approve the money needed to reverse damage caused by the dams. Zinke should become a champion of Klamath’s restoration.
Salton Sea: To the south, the California Resources Agency, the state equivalent of Interior, last month announced a 10-year plan to limit toxic dust blowing off the shrinking Salton Sea lake bed, and to restore habitat for migrating birds. The state will pick up much of the $400 million tab. But the feds have responsibility, too.
Tahoe: Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy last December fashioned legislation that promises but does not allocate $415 million for the Lake Tahoe basin in California and Nevada.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., was among the legislation’s advocates. Given that Heller could face a tough re-election fight in 2018, Zinke and Trump should see it in their interest to support funding for Tahoe.
Parks: Zinke plans to visit Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks. They are glorious this year, with snow-packed peaks, rushing waterfalls and flora and fauna newly fortified by heavy rains that mercifully ended six years of drought.
Zinke’s boss donated his salary from his first three months in the White House to the national parks. Alas, that $78,833 is but a mosquito on a mule deer’s posterior. Trump proposes to slice $1.2 billion from the Park Service, even though there is $12 billion in deferred maintenance at the parks, including nearly $2 billion in California. Zinke must fight that attack and protect national parks from commercialization.
While he’s in Yosemite, Zinke might want to follow in the footsteps of his Reagan administration predecessor, Donald Hodel, who suggested razing O’Shaughnessy Dam and restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley. True, that’s a big task. But the Sierra can be inspiring. We hope mightily that Zinke will be inspired to do right by this magical state.