Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is leaving his post Jan. 2 amid multiple ethics investigations. Credit: Cliff Owen/Associated Press

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is departing Jan. 2 amid multiple ethics investigations, leaves a legacy of widespread attacks on science. Zinke was in charge of balancing protection of national parks, endangered species, waterways and other resources with public uses on 500 million acres of public land.

Here are six ways Zinke rejected or impeded science during his nearly two years as interior secretary:

Changes in staffing

Zinke set an anti-science tone early by reassigning the Interior Department’s top climate change official to a job managing fossil fuel royalties. Thirty-two other senior career employees also were reassigned last year. He suspended dozens of Bureau of Land Management resource advisory councils and reconvened them with new responsibilities to expedite oil and gas permitting and meet other Trump administration priorities. He filled a national parks advisory committee with big donors and businesspeople. He  appointed former lobbyists to key jobs, including Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, who is a former oil company lobbyist.

Threats to ancient treasures and birds

Under Zinke, the Bureau of Land Management put countless archaeological sites at risk by auctioning off oil and gas leases in southeast Utah. Zinke expedited lease sales to oil companies that encompassed tens of thousands of acres near two national monuments in Utah.

Also, by crafting a new legal opinion, the Interior Department’s solicitor’s office erased a policy that had been used by Republicans and Democrats since the Nixon administration to protect migratory birds. Zinke’s top lawyer declared that it’s no longer illegal for companies to accidentally kill birds with oil wastewater ponds, wind turbines and other industrial practices.

Removal of climate change references

Every mention of the human role in causing climate change was removed from a draft of a major National Park Service scientific report on sea-level rise and storm surge. The references were reinserted after Reveal exposed the attempted censorship. But the data and an interactive website that were supposed to be made public still have been blocked from release.

A small New England national park, the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, was told that mentioning climate change would raise eyebrows with the new administration. So the park’s managers removed every mention from a major report meant to guide park leaders’ decisions for decades. Interior Department officials directed the National Park Service to cancel a policy that required science-based decisionmaking.

Business interests above ecological protection

Many of Zinke’s attacks on science benefit fossil fuel industries. But real estate developers and mining companies are reaping benefits, too. For instance, with Zinke in charge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reversed itself and retracted concerns about a city-sized housing project in Arizona that scientists say could turn the Southwest’s last free-flowing major river into an intermittent stream.

Political litmus test for scientific research

Columbia University Law School’s Silencing Science Tracker lists 34 examples of science being censored, defunded or hindered under Zinke. U.S. Geological Survey scientists who want to attend scientific conferences were required to demonstrate how their research relates to Zinke’s 10 priorities, according to guidelines first reported by The Washington Post.

Zinke also put a high school football buddy with no scientific expertise in charge of reviewing proposals for scientific grants at the Interior Department. This review, managed by Steve Howke, created a bottleneck that slowed the funding of research, according to The Guardian.

Misstating climate science

In his last weeks in office, Zinke misinformed the public about a major report on climate change impacts, the National Climate Assessment, which was released in late November. In a television interview, Zinke erroneously asserted that the report was slanted.

“It appears they took the worst-case scenarios and they built predictions upon that,” he said.

The report was compiled by hundreds of scientists and 13 federal agencies and considered a wide range of scenarios.

“I wrote the climate scenarios chapter myself so I can confirm it considers ALL scenarios,” Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University, tweeted.

Elizabeth Shogren can be reached at Follow her on Twitter: @ShogrenE.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Elizabeth Shogren was a senior reporter and producer for Reveal, covering science. As part of a new initiative, Shogren tracks the real-life effects of the anti-science mentality that has seeped into many corners of the federal government. Previously, Shogren was an on-air environment correspondent for NPR’s national and science desks. She has also covered the environment and energy for the Los Angeles Times and High Country News. While at NPR, she was a lead reporter for Poisoned Places, a data-driven series about the toxic air pollution that plagues some communities because of the failure of government to implement a decades-old federal law. The series received several honors, including a Science in Society journalism award from the National Association of Science Writers. Her High Country News investigations of the federal coal program and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s failure to adjust to climate change won the Society of Professional Journalists’ Top of the Rockies prizes. Early in her career, as a freelance foreign correspondent, she covered the fall of communism in Eastern Europe before joining the Los Angeles Times’ Moscow bureau. Later, she joined the paper’s Washington bureau, where she covered the White House, Congress, poverty and the environment. Shogren is based in Washington, D.C.