Opinion: Interior Secretary Zinke reportedly dressed down Joshua Tree superintendent over climate change tweets

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last month reportedly dressed down Joshua Tree National Park's superintendent over tweets that mentioned climate change.
(George Frey / Getty Images)

How’s this for a chilling effect in an era of global warming?

Last month, rangers at Joshua Tree National Park posted some tweets about climate change and its impact on the desert. It was pretty basic stuff.

“Park scientists know that climate change will effect the desert ecosystem, but they don’t yet know what exactly will change,” read one. “The data they are gathering about what’s currently happening will ID areas of special interest and assist management decisions for planning & protection.”

According to a report in the Hill, the benign-sounding tweets were enough to raise the ire of Ryan Zinke, secretary of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service. Joshua Tree Supt. David Smith was summoned to Washington for a meeting with Zinke, who reportedly told him, “no more climate tweets.”


The Trump administration’s war against truth has been of the scorched-earth variety, which should be troubling no matter one’s political beliefs. A secretive government is no friend to democracy, and ordering a park superintendent to a D.C. meeting with a Cabinet secretary to be told what not to say sends a chilling message through the Interior Department. (A department spokesman denied the Hill’s account of what was said in the meeting.)

Note that the offending tweets didn’t violate any department policy — in fact, they are still posted. But a clear message was sent to Zinke’s underlings.

This is the same Cabinet secretary who willy-nilly transferred senior staffers in June from jobs in which they had significant expertise to positions for which they were, by and large, unsuited. One transferee, Joel Clement, was reassigned from his position as director of policy analysis to a job auditing fossil fuel leases after publicly explaining how climate change is affecting Alaskan native villages (significantly, and well-documented).

The nation would be better off if Zinke wasted more of his time on such inanities instead of dismantling national monuments.

It’s unclear whether Zinke’s dressing-down of Smith reflects the administration’s disbelief that human activity is affecting climate change. Zinke himself has said that he believes that global warming is happening, but that the scientific debate is not over on how much of that is due to human activity (Note to Zinke: It’s over, except among mostly flat-Earthers and conspiracy theorists).

It could just be that Zinke is trying to intimidate a workforce that he views as hostile to him, and to Trump. He told the National Petroleum Council earlier this year that a third of the department’s employees were “not loyal to the flag.”

Of course, heavy-handed management techniques usually do create, or exacerbate, a hostile workforce. And Zinke’s telling a special interest group that has eyes on federal land leases that he doesn’t trust his staff raises doubts about his loyalty to the people and department he’s supposed to be leading.


Regardless, calling a park superintendent in for a spanking by the principal for what were, objectively, non-problematic communications with the public — you know, the people who own the parks and for whom the government is supposed to be working — is a bizarre waste of resources and of top management’s time.

But then, the nation would be better off if Zinke wasted more of his time on such inanities instead of dismantling national monuments, opening stunning landscapes to drilling rigs and truck roads, and undercutting decades of work by both Republicans and Democrats to preserve public lands for the public.

In fact, if freezing Zinke’s awful agenda were the result, I suspect most Interior department workers would happily line up for their turns in the woodshed.

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