In the 10 months since Ryan Zinke took the reins at the U.S. Department of Interior, he has proposed more than doubling summer entrance fees at Yellowstone, Glacier and other popular national parks to $70 per carload.
Lest the thrifty or those on a tight budget try to plan around such a price increase, under Zinke’s leadership, the National Park Service reduced the number of free park admission days to four for 2018 — down from 16 free days in 2016 and 10 in 2017. The reduction in no-cost admission days was announced two weeks before Christmas. (The National Park Service free days for 2018 are Jan. 15, April 21, Sept. 22 and Nov. 11. Not great dates for planning a picnic in Montana, Wyoming or North Dakota parks.)
The Trump administration proposed a 2018 budget with significant funding cuts for Interior. Even the budget for National Park Service deferred maintenance is targeted for reductions. Maybe that’s why Zinke proposed to raise the fees visitors pay.
The austerity measures Zinke has proposed are all the harder to accept when average Americans, especially Montanans, see repeated extravagant spending by the Interior secretary.
A story in last week’s editions of Newsweek magazine brought the credibility gap into sharp focus: A Nevada helicopter trip Zinke took on July 30 cost $39,295 that was billed to the department’s firefighting preparedness fund, even though Zinke was flying over national monument land — not the wildfires burning in Nevada at that time.
Sure, the helicopter expense is a drop in the bucket of the hundreds of millions the U.S. government spent fighting wildfires in 2017. But was it a good idea for the secretary to take the flight? That fire money was “borrowed” from other Interior and operations because Congress doesn’t fund firefighting like it funds natural disasters.
When Newsweek’s reporter asked Interior why Zinke’s helicopter trip was charged to the fire fund, department spokeswoman Heather Swift said it “was charged to the account in error.” She said the BLM would pay for the helicopter from “a more appropriate account.”
It’s all public money, regardless of which fund is billed. The same department that Zinke has billed for helicopter flights and chartered aircraft pays firefighters and park rangers and fixes potholes in Yellowstone roads.
We don’t know of any law that says the Interior secretary can’t fly around in helicopters and charter airplanes at public expense for quick, convenient trips. But when Zinke is wielding the budget knife and eyeing an increase of $40 for every car that rolls into Yellowstone Park, shouldn’t he be demonstrating some frugal leadership?
Zinke’s pricey trips at taxpayer expense have included:
• $12,375 for a chartered flight from Las Vegas to Whitefish for an overnight stay.
• $7,000 for a March charter plane trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands and a May trip to Alaska.
In October the Interior Office of Inspector General opened an investigation of Zinke’s travel expenses.
In November, Inspector General Mary Kendall said her investigation “has been delayed by absent or incomplete documentation for several pertinent trips and a review process that failed to include proper documentation.”
In early December, Politico, the Associated Press and other news organizations reported on Zinke helicopter trips that cost taxpayers more than $53,000. The information became public because of Freedom of Information requests for Interior travel documents.
The most expensive helicopter flight was the Nevada trip at $39,295. The records showed Zinke also spent $8,000 on a roundtrip that was just 72 miles each way. That flight got Zinke back to Washington, D.C., in time to attend Greg Gianforte’s swearing in as Montana’s U.S. representative. Zinke also took a roundtrip via helicopter for “an aerial survey of a power line corridor” about 160 miles away at a cost to taxpayers of $6,200. He returned to Washington in time to ride horses with Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri.
Zinke is failing to lead by example. How can taxpayers trust him to trim out waste — and sustain essential public services — when they see the secretary spending extravagantly on his own taxpayer-funded travel?
It sure looks like there’s one set of rules for Zinke and another for the rest of us who are expected to pick up his tab.
— Billings (Mont.) Gazette