Ryan Zinke Used Wildfire Funds For Fun Helicopter Tour. Good Thing There Aren't Any Wildfires!
You can tell this is photoshopped because Ryan Zinke never went to any actual fire lines.
That Ryan Zinke sure does get around! Back in July, while he was making up his mind about whether to recommend cutting the size of Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada, he took a helicopter tour of several areas in Nevada to get to know the land, as a good secretary of the Interior might. There's just one itty-bitty problem with that: Newsweek reports the Interior Department paid for Zinke's helicopter tour with funds from the National Interagency Fire Center, whose mission is not reducing the size of national monuments or ferrying Interior secretaries around the West, but firefighting and preparedness for wildfires. Huh!
Officials initially said Zinke’s July 30 helicopter trip could be covered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Interagency Fire Center, a hub for the organization of response to wildfires—even though the secretary did not visit any fire zones that day, according to internal emails obtained by Newsweek.
But after Newsweek questioned the line item, an Interior Department spokeswoman said this week that the chopper—listed in an accounting of Zinke’s travel as costing $39,295—“was charged to the account in error.” She added that the BLM would pay for the helicopter from “a more appropriate account.”
Hooray, everything's fixed! But how did the funding for Zinke's helicopter trip come out of fire readiness funds in the first place, especially considering that this year has been especially bad for wildfires, huh? The Interior Department spokesperson, Heather Swift, didn't want to get into that, saying only,
There are different accounts for different functions, and it’s the department’s position that there are more appropriate accounts to fit this particular expenditure.
That's not quite an answer, but these are the Days of Trump, so maybe answers to questions don't come after you ask the question. As it turns out, a Freedom of Information Act request that accountability group "Democracy Forward" shared with Newsweek gets at a better explanation:
[On] July 10, Swift emailed a group of colleagues, saying, “I think we should get the Secretary to a fire line in Nevada while he is there. The BLM is point on a couple fires out there. May have to leave a day early but I think it’s worth it.”
Swift also requested and received information on wildfire sites in the state.
A week later, it became clear that Zinke wouldn't be able to fit a visit to fire lines into his schedule, but that didn't stop another underling planning Zinke's Wild West Adventure from emailing that
“it looks like BLM will be able to pay for the helicopter out of the national fire office in Boise,” and organizers cited a specific billing code.
Swift later explained that everything about Zinke's tour of the sites in Nevada was properly in compliance with all the proper regulations, and the only glitch was using that billing code for the Fire Center. What's more, she explained, not the least bit defensively, OBAMA WAS MUCH WORSER:
[The] only newsworthy item is that this secretary has sharply curbed the use of chartered airplanes compared to the previous administration, which spent over a million dollars on chartered airplanes.
That's always a good go-to!
Now, for what it's worth, in September, the Department of Agriculture said 2017 was "the most expensive year on record," with fire suppression costs in the West, Pacific Northwest, and Northern Rocky Mountain regions totaling over $2 billion. Zinke's home state of Montana had mostly exhausted its wilderness firefighting budget by August, requiring creative shifting of money around in state funds. (Yes, yes, nitpickers, state money is different from Interior's budget for the Interagency Fire Center, but that's not the point -- the point is that firefighting money was short everywhere.)
While a BLM official confirmed the billing codes for Zinke's helicopter trip did indeed mean the trip was paid for with "fire preparedness" funds, which would normally go to pay workers and purchase equipment, it's no big, because the payment was later fixed, and also nobody was hurt by fudging the funding:
He added that neither Zinke’s use of the helicopter nor the billing of the trip to the fire center negatively affected ground workers’ response to “three large fires” in Nevada on the day of the secretary’s visit.
That is very, very reassuring! Informed of Interior's explanation that the funding of the helicopter inspection tour was simply an error, Corey Ciorciari, policy and strategy director for Democracy Forward, scoffed. Given all the questions about Zinke's other dubious travel, Ciorciari said, "the idea that this was a ‘billing error’ is laughable."
This was no billing accident. Just look at the bite radius! Tens of thousands of dollars -- that's a great white guy, all right.