By Patrick Donnelly
The Trump administration has engaged in an all-out assault on environmental protections for our clean air and water, public lands, wildlife and climate. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department.
Now that ethical scandals have forced Zinke out, rumors are swirling that outgoing Nevada Sen. Dean Heller may be under consideration for the job.
That would be a mistake for Nevada and our nation.
Heller has a lengthy far-right record on public lands and wildlife issues. In many ways he is in a league with Zinke: Both are beholden to the corporate interests that have propped up their political careers. Heller is awash in campaign cash from the very industries the Interior Department is charged with regulating.
He’s taken $645,700 from the oil and gas industry, but as Interior secretary would be expected to safeguard America’s air, water and wildlife from the impacts of oil drilling and fracking.
He’s taken $529,626 from the mining industry, which pollutes Nevada’s waterways and has destroyed sites sacred to the Western Shoshone tribes. As secretary, Heller would have the authority to permit new mines and be responsible for ensuring the mining industry cleans up its messes.
He’s taken $436,515 from the agribusiness industry, but as secretary he would oversee the ranching industry, the single largest land use in the West.
And Heller has taken $1.3 million in campaign cash from Nevada’s primary growth industry ― real estate. As Interior secretary, Heller would be responsible for land-use planning, including when and how public land is sold.
All of that cash has pushed Heller to take positions favoring those industries. He has repeatedly voted to strip protections from endangered species, including the gray wolf, to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to oppose policies promoting clean energy. He recently proposed a bill ― deeply unpopular in Nevada and largely at the behest of the ranching and mining industries ― to strip protections from 2.5 million acres of Wilderness Study Areas.
Perhaps the best example of Heller’s lack of fitness for Interior’s top job is his support of the violent militia that joined Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s standoff against the federal government.
Bundy, who has illegally grazed cattle for more than 20 years on public lands now protected as Gold Butte National Monument, led a militia that pointed semi-automatic weapons at Bureau of Land Management law enforcement officers. Heller called them “patriots.” While he later walked this comment back, Heller’s true colors shone through in a moment of crisis.
This should be immediately disqualifying. Heller’s coddling of the Bundys shows a complete disregard for the safety of federal employees and the laws he would be charged with enforcing as Interior secretary.
Zinke instituted climate denial as policy at Interior, from scrubbing climate science off government websites to sabotaging the release of the latest National Climate Assessment. Heller would likely continue that approach, having said in 2015 that the impact of humans on climate is “up for debate.”
Perhaps Zinke’s most infamous act was facilitating Trump’s unpopular and illegal move to shrink Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Nevada’s own newly minted Gold Butte National Monument was also on Trump and Zinke’s chopping block, and Heller supported shrinking it. Only through strong advocacy from the Democrats in Nevada’s congressional delegation did the Monument avoid the chopping block.
If the purpose of the next Interior secretary is to continue Zinke’s legacy of pillaging public lands to enrich Trump’s campaign donors, one could scarcely think of a better candidate than Heller.
But if the purpose of the secretary of the Interior is to protect our lands and waters, restore wildlife populations and preserve America’s natural heritage for generations to come, Dean Heller is not the man to do it.
Campaign contribution information for this op-ed was obtained via opensecrets.org.
Patrick Donnelly is the Nevada state director at the Center for Biological Diversity.