Mary O'Brien

“I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.”

Thus spake the current Secretary of the Interior Department to a conference of oil industry executives during the last week of September. Secretary Ryan Zinke’s 70,000-member “crew” includes the employees of the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Arts and Crafts Board, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Federal Consulting Group, and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement; as well as the Bureau of Reclamation, Office of Natural Resources Revenue, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement. Secretary Zinke figures about 21,000 of them are not loyal to the flag.

Well, first of all, what constitutes loyalty to “the flag” is in the eye of the beholder. For instance, some would conceive of the flag as being a symbol of the U.S. as a “rule of law” country, meaning it is governed by laws, as opposed to being governed by decisions of individual government officials (as when Germany required a salute to Hitler for 12 years).

What if Secretary Zinke is implying that employees are being disloyal to the “flag” if they rely on laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, that provides for public review of a federal agency’s estimate of environmental consequences prior to undertaking a project that might cause significant environmental consequences, such as turning Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’s dinosaur-laden Kaiparowits Plateau into private-company coal fields? Or if they balk at trying to insure the continued existence of a plant under the Endangered Species Act? If so, then Zinke is defining “the flag” as decisions of individual governmental officials, rather than a flag representing a country under the rule of law.

Is Secretary Zinke defining being loyal to the flag primarily as committing to no dissent within the Interior Department during this administration? Or to no dissent to fossil fuel increases? Or to denial that climate change is occurring, due primarily to fossil fuels?

Presumably Secretary Zinke has a list of those employees whom he defines as not loyal to the flag, because he’s arrived at a quantitative estimate of 30 percent. If he would just be a little clearer and list maybe 15 or 20 of these 21,000 employees he considers as being not loyal to the flag of the U.S., the public could learn more about Zinke’s conception of “the flag.”

And who knows? Some of the BLM, Park Service and USGS employees he considers not loyal to the flag may be living among us here in Moab. Depending on his definition of disloyalty, there may be many who would hope that way more than 30 percent of the 70,000 employees are disloyal to Zinke’s conception of the flag.

But the issue is larger than Zinke’s conception of “the flag.” It is the authoritarianism inherent in Secretary Zinke’s claim that he “has” a crew of 70,000 employees. In the authoritarianism by which he gave 15 days’ notice to dozens of top career Interior officials to move to work assignments having little or nothing to do with their longtime experience or skills (e.g., the top climate policy official was moved to a job overseeing fossil fuel payments). The authoritarianism (and irony) in his shaking his finger and barking at a Native American woman protesting his lack of time spent consulting with the five tribes of Bears Ears to “Be nice!”

And the issue is larger than Zinke’s authoritarianism. It is the authoritarian sympathies and actions of President Trump, and many others in his administration. You know Martin Niemoller’s line that lends itself so well to any society and time: “First they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Muslim. Then they came for the employees who were not loyal to the flag, and I did not speak out – because I was loyal to the flag. . .”

On a lighter note: If any of you have any idea of what Secretary Zinke was meaning when he offered the following, without further explanation, to the same group of oil industry executives, I’m all ears: “Fracking is proof that God’s got a good sense of humor and he loves us.” I guess Zinke figures he’s able to prove things about God, as well as define who is not loyal to “the flag.”

Mary O’Brien lives in Castle Valley and admires many employees in the Department of the Interior.