I have spent a good bit of time in the last year chronicling the horror show that is Ryan Zinke, trying to bring attention to this man who is as dangerous as anyone in the Cabinet. The thing, as the historian Adam Sowards points out, the Department of Interior has long been an agency for corruption, despoliation of resources, and exploitation of Native Americans and others who use the land for non-industrial purposes. It’s only in recent decades, with the rise of environmentalism, that anyone has even expected anything else.
The current Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, is caught in a whirl of ethical questions. He is being investigated over questionable expenditures, from private helicopter jaunts to commemorative coins bearing his name, and he is facing broad criticism for an opaque and apparently one-sided review of national monuments. But how far from the norm is Zinke’s behavior? Not far, in fact, as the history of the department shows.
The relationship between the department and the West goes back to 1849, when Interior joined the federal apparatus as a Cabinet-level department to administer land, tribes and more. The West’s value rested in its real estate, and Interior’s involvement in the business of land encouraged rampant fraud.
The department disposed of the United States’ conquered land through the General Land Office (which would later merge with the U.S. Grazing Service to become the Bureau of Land Management) and reduced Native land holdings by two-thirds with the Dawes Act of 1887. Interior’s bureaucrats accepted bribes, enforced few regulations, and withheld cash and supplies from tribal nations. As the 19th century wound down, Sarah Winnemucca, a Northern Paiute writer and activist, railed against the corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs. Reservation conditions would not improve, she wrote, “if you (in the department) keep on sending us such agents as have been sent to us year after year, who do nothing but fill their pockets, and the pockets of their wives and sisters.”
By the early 20th century, the federal conservation program emerged with new agencies and laws designed to manage resources with greater care and professionalism — and with less waste and fraud. Yet Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall continued the department’s pernicious tendency for self-aggrandizement. A senator from New Mexico with experience in mining and agriculture, Fall became secretary in 1921, part of the decade’s dominant Republican ascendancy. He was appointed by President Warren G. Harding, to whom he was a loyal friend (a quality certain presidents find more important than competence or experience). Fall detested conservation, favored full resources development, undermined tribal sovereignty, and aimed to consolidate power under him.
Fall leased out the national coal and petroleum reserves at Wyoming’s Teapot Dome and two sites in California to Mammoth Oil Company and Pan American Petroleum Company in deals that emerged from secrecy and non-competitive bidding, a shady process all too characteristic in a scandal-prone administration. The “gifts and loans” he received from oil executives amounted to more than $6.5 million in today’s dollars. Fall came under investigation and resigned his position in 1923, was convicted of a felony in 1929, and became the first U.S. Cabinet official to be imprisoned, in 1931.
Sowards goes on to discuss the odious James Watt. And he doesn’t even get into one of my least favorites, Douglas McKay, who like many Eisenhower appointees were complete corporate hacks who supported racist policies, in this case the termination of the tribes. None of this is to say we shouldn’t expect and demand more and there are good Interior secretaries–Stewart Udall, Cecil Andrus, Bruce Babbitt. But conservative western interests see Interior as an agency to help them plunder the West and that goes against no Republican doctrine. Zinke is in many ways the ideal person for the job, even if he is a poseur who can’t even fish correctly.