Interior Imperialism

Ryan Zinke will be initiated into a long tradition of Interior secretaries who have stood ambivalently between public and private interests. This is because the Interior Department has always stood ambivalently between public and private interests.

Fossil fuels, American expansion, and rebel park rangers

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke

In late January 2017, a faction of National Park Service (NPS) employees went rogue. An unknown member of the NPS staff had tweeted side-by-side images of Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 and Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. The juxtaposition seemed to say it all: Trump failed to draw crowds, visual testimony of his already powerful unpopularity. The Trump Administration’s retaliation was characteristically swift. A gag order followed, and the tweet disappeared. But the official silencing fueled an “Alt National Parks” movement on social media (@AltNatParkSer), in which anonymous members of the NPS use unofficial channels to critique emerging policies: those that devalue parks and clear the way for development. Their actions, in turn, prompted the kitschy meme and call to arms, “I was not expecting the park rangers to lead the resistance, none of the dystopian novels I read prepared me for this but cool.”

Much was made of the heroism of these employees. The New York Times attributed it to the profound faith in the public good underlying “America’s best idea.” But the park ranger rebellion is less an example of particular heroism than the culmination of an ongoing, existential struggle of American governance. This becomes clearer when you look beyond the National Park Service, to the cabinet-level institution to which it belongs.

The Department of the Interior is known today for the management of natural resources and indigenous affairs. Its work is conducted through a variety of bureaus, including the Geological Survey, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Affairs; its most local iteration has been satirized in Parks and Recreation. In mid-December, 2016, Trump announced his intent to appoint Ryan Zinke, a two-term Republican congressman from Montana, to the post of secretary of the interior. On March 1, Zinke was confirmed with relative ease, and he made a dramatic entrance to his first day on the job at the Department of the Interior by riding his horse, Tonto, through the streets of Washington DC. A former Navy SEAL, Zinke is a staunch supporter of both federal control of public lands, and extractive industries—from coal to natural gas. These two agendas often run at cross purposes, of course. The Alt National Parks movement has recently protested proposals to open national parks to drilling. In this sense, it was fitting that Zinke’s name capped off a list of potential nominees that included, at one point, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, prominent supporter of the “drill, baby, drill” ethos.

Zinke will be initiated into a long tradition of Interior secretaries who have stood ambivalently between public and private interests. This is because the Interior Department has always stood ambivalently between public and private interests. There is in fact a long history of pro-extraction policies in national parks: some mining laws at the turn of the 20th century allowed mineral prospecting and extraction in mineral-rich parks, like California’s Death Valley National Park. The Interior Department’s incessant tug-of-war between promoting and regulating extractive capitalism can make sense not only of the Zinke appointment, but also other cabinet-level appointments poised to shape both policies on extraction policies and policies related to climate change: Scott Pruitt and the Environmental Protection Agency, Rick Perry and the Department of Energy, and former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson and the State Department.


The Interior Department was founded on March 3, 1849 to manage westward expansion. With the conclusion of the war with Mexico in 1848, the United States had expropriated a vast territory, with indigenous people and natural resources that the federal government set out to superintend. Although Interior became the first federal engine of comprehensively “domestic” policy, its purview was, in reality, to domesticate what had, until recently, been foreign. The Interior Department had to make the westward expanse home by settling white Americans on individual farm plots (in keeping with a Jeffersonian ideal). And it sought to open areas rich with timber and minerals to development by private operators. Both agendas required the subordination and removal of indigenous peoples. Both were defined as being in the “national interest.”

Yet the national interest was a moving target. Continental expansion was hardly in the interest of indigenous peoples. But even the settlers and industrialists who benefited from it found Interior’s split personality unpredictable and hard to manage. For example, the Interior Department’s General Land Office struggled to balance the competing demands of corporate interests like railroads and small land owners seeking settlement. In the 20th century, this tension took new forms. After the apparent close of the American frontier heralded by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, and thus the apparent end of its duties in continental expansion, the Interior Department traded its former role for one as the natural resource manager of the American state. Conservationism became the department’s new mainstay, as the Interior Department became the institutional home of the National Park Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency behind the colossal hydroelectric dams of the American West. Yet in this new era the question constantly resurfaced for Interior leaders: should they facilitate resource extraction or should they forestall it?

Extractive industries had debilitating effects on average citizens, to say nothing of local environments. Mineworkers faced dismal and dangerous working conditions and threatened strikes. Those relying on the public domain for grazing livestock or on national parks for refuge suffered when Interior helped to privatize those same lands. Those planning for the nation’s defense stared down the threat of resource scarcity, including the availability of coal and oil for wartime mobilization. Extraction left its mark on the landscape in the form of toxic tailings ponds and pillars of effluent smoke adding carbon to the atmosphere. Although Interior consistently performed a tenuous juggling act with the competing interests of workers, ranchers, tourists, environmentalists, and industrialists, the department rarely attracted national attention for its role in facilitating extraction.

The otherwise demure Interior Department became notorious, however, with the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s. Interior secretary Albert B. Fall had been taking oil reserves in Wyoming set aside for the Navy and secretly opening bids to private oil operators. The public was incensed, and Fall was indicted. A century later, the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster revealed how little Interior had been regulating offshore drilling. In both instances Interior personnel worked, as the department often did, to promote extractive capitalism, but this was seen to be contrary to the department’s remit.

Meeting with occasional scandal at home, Interior had a freer hand abroad. In Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, Interior secretary Harold L. Ickes, one of the longest-serving cabinet members in history, turned the Interior Department into a resource manager for resources across the world: from tin deposits in Latin America to oil fields in Saudi Arabia. In the 1950s and 1960s, Interior leadership carried the torch further, spearheading mineral projects along new frontiers, including Third World nations participating in Harry Truman’s Point Four program of technical assistance and, later, the US Agency for International Development (USAID). This included a significant role in the CIA overthrow of Iranian premier Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953 to clear the way to the extraction of oil by the company that would become British Petroleum.

The Department of the Interior has long helped with extraction, though its tactics have changed over time. During the 1970s, Interior ceded some power to the newly created Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy (both agencies spun from the Interior Department, and which usurped key functions). Furthering the departmental downsizing, Ronald Reagan appointed as interior secretary Jim Watt, who took up the mantle of promoting extractive capitalism at all costs. Watt cavalierly and blatantly moved to privatize what remained of the public domain, clearing the way for oil and coal operators. His brazenness was then considered such a liability that Reagan had to fire him after two years.

But the task of securing US mineral interests could be moved to other departments: thus, the endpoint of Reagan’s amped-up defense spending was the 1991 Gulf War, as clear an instance of “blood for oil” as exists. These baton-passes of extractive imperatives between arms of the American government, at home and abroad, explain the appointment of Rex Tillerson. The State Department has a long history of opening paths to extraction abroad. But previous secretaries evinced a much greater concern to avoid the appearance of base self-interest.

What is new in the Trump era, then, is the extent to which key arms of the American state no longer uphold a pretense to serve a broader public. They serve profits and corporations openly. Though hypocrisy in these areas was rampant in the Obama years, the spoken commitments still mattered, as the briefly successful Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline protests made clear.

The Interior Department under Zinke looks to be less interested in maintaining this fiction. The construction of the contested pipelines has already been put into motion. The Department of Energy, too, will be encouraged to cut corners on regulations of nuclear energy facilities in service of capitalist profits. Employees on the government payroll from the NPS to the EPA, meanwhile, have been prohibited from offering criticism to an unprecedented degree. The lack of official capacity to place a check on sprawling engines of capitalism is, in part, why and how we get the rebel park rangers. In the global context, the American government no longer feigns disinterest in foreign minerals, a longstanding symbol of imperialist and capitalist exploitation across the world. In the absence of these ethical commitments, the Trump administration, through arms of the State Department and others, will lay claim to resources across the globe by fiat and without concern for potential contributions to climate change. In Exxon we trust.

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