Paul Wellman (file)

I went cruising the mean streets of Santa Barbara’s Alta Mesa neighborhood for signs of Ryan Zinke, whom Donald Trump saw fit to appoint secretary of the interior, and any new flagpoles he may have installed. In Washington, D.C., where he works, Zinke is famous for his love of flagpoles, having assigned a federal employee the task of hoisting a special Zinke flag up the departmental pole every time he enters the building and then de-hoisting it every time he leaves. A big bear of a guy, Zinke is not without charm. He’s blessed with a mischievous grin that has a tendency to morph into a leering smirk if he’s not careful. When Zinke needs to get away from it all, he and his wife, Lolita Zinke, repair to his mother-in-law’s home here in Santa Barbara. They live on a street named after his now-deceased father-in-law, Frederick Wilson Hand, who made his bones selling heating equipment in Alaska before retiring to Santa Barbara to enjoy a yacht-’n’-country-club lifestyle and writing about it as a columnist for the Santa Barbara News-Press. Zinke and his wife are said to be here so much that people in his home state of Montana wonder if he still lives there.

What Zinke really thinks about these days is hard to pin down, a trick he no doubt picked up as a U.S. Navy SEAL to confound enemies. During a brief incarnation as radio talk-show host Commander Z in 2013, Zinke invited birther nutjobs questioning Barack Obama’s national origin as guests. While he never embraced birtherism per se, he would later invite a birther to serve on the board of his political action committee.

In the past, Zinke has expressed his own opinions pretty clearly. He once opined that the two Iraq wars he had fought in were waged for oil, a refreshingly candid assessment given his party’s steadfast denial that oil had anything to do with it. As a politician, Zinke has only grudgingly acknowledged the existence of climate change but has always questioned just how much blame can be laid at the doorstep of human activity. As Commander Z, he argued it didn’t matter how much carbon we dumped into the atmosphere; according to recent reports in E&E News, an environment and energy bulletin, he was quoted as saying the impact would be “virtually nothing.”

Commander Z’s radio musings help explain Secretary Zinke’s pell-mell rush to embrace a policy of “energy dominance.” If “energy dominance” requires opening up all federal offshore lands to new oil and gas leasing ​— ​even in the Santa Barbara Channel, where such leasing has been off-limits since Ronald Reagan was in the White House ​— ​then so be it. Maybe it also explains last week’s decision by the Department of the Interior to quietly approve a new oil well and pipeline in the Carrizo Plain ​— ​known for its harsh beauty and swallowing silences ​— ​which was designated a national monument in 2001. While the new development is relatively small ​— ​one new well and a new stretch of pipeline one-eighth of a mile long ​— ​it marks an ominous precedent. It is the first new oil development ever allowed in any national monument anywhere. It’s worth noting the new well will replace one that’s lain fallow since 1958. Only two years ago, its owner ​— ​an oil company out of Bakersfield ​— ​proposed abandoning the site outright and restoring it to its natural conditions.

What’s changed? Ryan Zinke, that’s what.

While perusing a copy of this month’s Western Livestock Journal, I saw that Zinke has flip-flopped and is now supporting efforts to introduce up to 200 grizzly bears into a national park in Washington State, something he initially opposed. If grizzlies were allowed to disappear, he explained, it “would rob the region of an icon.” Naturally, the cattle ranchers there are still choking on their own tongues over the prospect of “200 man-eating predators” on the loose near their cows.

Giant kangaroo rat
Chuck Graham

I get it. Grizzlies are great optics. And Zinke ​— ​who rode a horse to work his first day on the job ​— ​is all about icons and optics, even if that means, as it did, showing up for a photo op with the vice president wearing his cowboy hat backwards. That being said, grizzlies are a little obvious. Maybe a real macho man like Zinke could take a chance and embrace something original, like the giant kangaroo rat.

I say this not merely out of general perversity, but because the giant kangaroo rat (GKR) happens to be a bona fide endangered species that dwells in underground bunkers strategically strewn throughout the more than 200,000 acres making up the Carrizo Plain ​— ​did I mention its harsh beauty and deafening silences? ​— ​and whose continued existence on Planet Earth may be further jeopardized by the new oil well just approved.

Here’s why the GKR is cool. It can leap nine feet in the air. Given its body size, that’s like a six-foot human jumping 108 feet. It can survive impossibly hot and dry conditions with next to no water. How? It gets what moisture it needs from microscopic droplets found in all the tiny seeds it scavenges and hoards in its GKR lair. And by the act of scavenging, the GKR inadvertently plays a massive role disseminating seeds throughout the valley floor. Not only that, the GKR is breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a host of other critters upon whom their continued existences rely. In the act of love, the GKR is notably not aggressive: The male and female first hang out together, getting acquainted, and then he follows her ​— ​“naso-anal” (the scientific term describing GKRs pre-coital traveling configuration) — into her underground-bunker boudoir.

Enviros are suing block approval of the new oil well on the grounds that the GKR was given short shrift in the environmental analysis. Specifically, they object to the fly-over technique of assessing GKR populations. Kangaroo rats stay underground. They go out only at night. You can’t count them from the air. That’s because ​— ​unlike Ryan Zinke ​— ​they don’t have flagpoles.


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