U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke toured Kings Canyon National Park Friday for the first time, and met with staff to discuss pressing issues within California’s national parks, including infrastructure woes, wildfire prevention and claims of sexual harassment within the Park Service.
Zinke, a former Navy SEAL and Montana congressman, donned full fire gear as he lit a small pile burn in Grant Grove. It was a model pile burn like the bigger ones designed to destroy branches and other debris on the forest floor that could fuel a forest fire. Prior to the demonstration, Zinke visited an area damaged in 2015 by the Rough fire with Kings Canyon National Park Superintendent Woody Smeck.
Ash from the pile fell on Zinke, Park Service employees and reporters as the secretary addressed the media at an outdoors press conference, with a chill breeze blowing and the temperature in the mid-30s.
Zinke opened his comments by saying that President Donald Trump “is a good boss” who doesn’t micromanage. Instead, he calls once a week for an update.
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Zinke, ever the military man, said the purpose of his visit was to inspect the front lines of the national parks firsthand. He stressed that his first goal as secretary will be to rebuild trust with the public by ensuring there will be no sale or transfer of public lands under his stewardship.
Wildfire management and updating infrastructure are top priorities, Zinke said.
When asked about the sexual harassment claims mounting within the Park Service,, Zinke said he had read the harassment reports and deemed them credible.
“There’s zero tolerance for sexual harassment,” Zinke said. “I will give no quarter. I’ve had (Navy) commands with similar problems.”
Zinke said it will take additional training to help create a “cultural adjustment.”
The secretary kept in line with Trump’s statements on increasing mining in national parks and on federal land, saying “it’s better to produce domestically” than rely on foreign oil or natural gas. America needs jobs and additional revenue to support the military, he added.
“We’re going to do it right,” Zinke said. “As an Eagle scout, you learn to leave the campground in the same or better condition as when you found it, and we’ll do the same.”
Zinke also addressed the looming concerns of a government shutdown, promising the parks would stay open if that happened. They were closed during the government shutdown in 2013.
After the burn demonstration, Zinke met with the park’s staff in a closed-door lunch.
Smeck, the Kings Canyon superintendent, said Zinke’s visit put him at ease. The secretary was “inquisitive and observant” during their time together.
Smeck said he let Zinke know that the parks need financial support to fix roads, trails and facilities, as well as attract more visitors.