As Blackfeet pray, Zinke promises changes at Park Service

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From left, Blackfeet Tribal members Tyson Runningwolf, Tim Davis, Sec. of of Interior Ryan Zinke, Tribal council President Harry Barnes and Carl Kipp joke during a photo op at Glacier Park’s community building last week.

A backlog of infrastructure projects. A promise to reorganize the National Park Service. No tolerance for sexual harassment and prayers from the Blackfeet.

Those were just some of the themes touched upon as newly anointed Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke visited Glacier National Park last week.

The visit began with a prayer ceremony by Blackfeet tribal leaders as Tyson Running Wolf blessed Zinke and his wife, Lola and son, Wolf.

“You’ve lived five lifetimes for most people,” Running Wolf told Zinke.

Running Wolf prayed for the Badger Two Medicine and the health of tribe, noting that it has accomplished more things in the past few months than it has in the past 30 years. In the past year, the Blackfeet have seen the return of a native bison herd to the reservation, the completion of the Blackfeet Tribal Water compact and the relinquishment of most of the oil and gas leases in the Badger Two Medicine — lands held sacred to the tribe that are just outside the reservation on the Lewis and Clark National Forest south of Marias Pass.

After the prayers, Zinke came with a message to park staff, saying he had plans to reorganize the Park Service with an emphasis on more local control.

He said the middle management of the Park Service and Washington, D.C. “wants to tell you how to do things.”

“That’s going to come to an end,” he said.

He was clearly speaking to the crowd in the room.

“My priorities are the front line,” he said. “That’s where we have to put the resources.”

He said President Trump understands that national parks are the face of the Department of Interior. With a record 330 million visitors in its centennial year and a record 2.9 million visitors to Glacier alone, the challenges are significant.

“We want to make sure the park experience is world class,” Zinke said.

He said he wanted the Interior to be the best agency in government.

“I hate losing,” Zinke said.

Zinke also spoke about a sexual harassment scandal that has rocked the Park Service.

“If you see something wrong,” he told employees. “Don’t turn the other cheek.”

He said there is “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment.

“I will give no quarter,” he said.

He addressed the $12.5 billion backlog in projects facing the national parks, which extends not only to roads and infrastructure within park boundaries, but roads that lead to parks as well.

“The gateway roads are ours,” Zinke said. “The bill is coming due.”

Glacier has a backlog of about $150 million in projects. The largest is the Many Glacier Road. The Inside North Fork Road also needs repairs.

After Zinke spoke, Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said the park was still committed to realigning the Inside Road and getting it open to the public.

Mow said he “liked the fact that (Zinke) said that one size doesn’t fit all.”

In the past, Glacier has run into issues with its ideas being overruled by regional offices — particularly when it came to managing the crowds on Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Zinke reiterated his promise to keep public lands public and he also acknowledged that climate change wasn’t a hoax.

“Man has had an influence,” he said. “I don’t think that’s disputed.”

But he also charged the U.S. Geological Survey to come up with better modeling, so land managers could better plan for the future.

But when asked what assurances he could give that places like the Badger-Two Medicine remain protected, he said he had reservations about deals that were done at the last minute and that he was “reviewing everything with a clean sheet of paper.”

Several energy leases in the Badger Two Medicine were canceled in final days of the Obama Administration. One lease cancellation owned by the Solonex Corp. is being contested in federal court.

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