Zinke bristles at Dems’ questions
Lawmakers question his travel spending amid park fee hikes
WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke bristled Tuesday under questioning by Democrats about his travel spending as the Trump administration seeks deep cuts to conservation programs and fee increases at national parks.
Zinke testified before a Senate committee about the agency’s proposed $11.7 billion budget for 2019.
He has proposed doubling entry fees during peak seasons at some of the most popular national parks to help make up an $11 billion backlog in needed maintenance. Meanwhile, an advisory committee has proposed cutting royalty fees paid by energy companies to drill for oil and natural gas in federal waters.
Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, flashed anger when the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s ranking Democrat pressed him on whether he could justify increasing access fees for working Americans when he has been spending taxpayer money on chartered flights. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington asked Zinke if it was a mistake for him to spend $12,375 on a latenight trip in June from Las Vegas to his home state of Montana on a private jet.
“Well, first, insults and innuendos are misleading. I never took a private jet anywhere,” Zinke said, adding that all three flights he had taken on private planes as secretary were on aircraft driven by propellers, not jet engines.
Zinke also referenced a report last week by The Associated Press that the Interior Department was spending nearly $139,000 to upgrade three sets of double doors in his office at the agency’s headquarters.
“I resent the fact of your insults, I resent the fact they’re misleading, I resent the fact of the doors,” Zinke said to Cantwell, the tone of his voice growing sharp. “And I’ll go through line by line. … To allege that it’s a private jet is inappropriate, ma’am.”
Zinke is one of several members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet who have been under intense scrutiny for expenses that critics deemed questionable. Records show he also spent more than $53,000 on three helicopter trips last summer, including one that allowed him to return to Washington in time to take a horseback ride with Vice President Mike Pence.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-ore., told Zinke that he had fallen far short of his professed role model, Theodore Roosevelt, a renowned conservationist who protected about 230 million acres of public lands. By contrast, Zinke “pushed the largest reduction of … treasured public lands in American history,” proposed opening most of America’s coasts to offshore oil drilling, and “played a shell game” with wildfire budgeting during the most expensive wildfire season in U.S. history, Wyden said.