How Sec. Zinke Spent His Snow Day: Shoveling The Snow Off, Giving Tours Of A Closed Lincoln Memorial
Those who work in Washington, D.C., know that the federal government shuts down completely at the slightest hint of inclement weather. There is an entire website devoted to the notifications of the government being open or not.
Tuesday, after two to three inches of snow, that website said this:
In preparation for the delay, many government officials up and down the east coast hunkered down for a slow work day.
What newly-minted Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke did was call the cops. Specifically, the U.S. Park Police. This force is under his control as Interior Secretary, and Zinke wanted to do a ride around under emergency conditions. The Park Police had previously provided the hard-charging former congressman and Navy SEAL a horse to ride to work on for his first day at Interior; however, this would be the first time Zinke had seen his new position in a state of semi-emergency situation.
This Independent Journal Review reporter was invited to ride in the back seat of the police cruiser for a day that spanned two states, a couple of secret monument tours, a walk around General Robert E. Lee's dilapidated home, and the Secretary of the Interior literally shoveling snow off the Lincoln Memorial steps. The ride was a wild one.
Here is what happens when Secretary Zinke goes out in a snowstorm:
11:50 a.m.: I arrive at the Department of the Interior building in Washington, D.C. The art deco building is encased in snow, and plows grind through the mostly empty streets. I wait inside on a lobby bench, watched by a handful of security guards.
11:57 a.m.: Secretary Zinke enters the lobby in a flak jacket, flanked by security. “You ready to go?” he asks bluntly, bolting past me as I gather my computer and camera equipment. It is not typical to see an administration secretary in a flak jacket. It made me wonder what kind of a ride we were going to have.
Outside the building is a waiting Park Police officer at attention. He stands beside his squad car. The officer introduces himself and invites the secretary to sit in the front seat. I am placed in the back seat, next to a mounted semi-automatic and informed that prisoners also sit where I am sitting, so my door handles will not work from the inside. I tell them that that's OK — as a member of the press, I'm used to being treated like a prisoner by this administration.
They both laugh.
12:05 p.m.: We hit the road, driving down the National Mall. Zinke asks probing questions of the officer under his command, starting the conversation casually, “Just wanting to get a feel for Park Police and what we will be doing together,” then digging into questions about jurisdiction, vagrancy, and drug use in national parks.
The officer tells the secretary that today his force will be looking for ditched motorists and any homeless living in the park who may have been trapped in the snowstorm. “You got a crazy [person] at the Lincoln Memorial, what do you do with them?” Zinke asks. The officer rattles off a list of preventative measures the force takes to curtail crazies.
12:08 p.m.: The officer points out a large white tent on the National Mall, telling the secretary that this was an ongoing protest tent, which has been granted a three-year permit. “Who grants such long permits? Who gave them the permit for three years?” asks Zinke, a bit incredulous. The officer tells the secretary that their station did. “That sounds like a lease to me,” Zinke states. “They don't have a building. It's the National Mall. You don't want to have campgrounds set up here for years.”
12:10 p.m.: Zinke points to a fenced-in horse stable on the National Mall. “That was not meant to be permanent,” he says, “But it just sticks around because we don't fund an appropriate structure for our horses.” The police cruiser zips up a snow-encased Rock Creek Parkway and past another horse stable. The secretary gets very animated and passionate after seeing this stable.
“Now this stable, this one was build out of wood. Not good for the horses if there's a fire, right? It also has holes in the roof. You know why? Because it was built under a popular suicide bridge. People jump and put a hole in the roof of the stable. So our best horses live in a stable with holes through the roof and no place to run. I'm hoping to fix this. We need a proper facility for our horses, where they can run and live safely. This is the administration to get this done, too. You know why? Because I ride. Our Secretary of State rides. Our Vice President and his wife ride. They need good, healthy horses in D.C. and, of course, so do our officers.”
I ask Zinke if Vice President Pence has ever asked for one of his horses to ride:
“Not yet. But he wouldn't have to ask very hard. I'll go riding with Mike any day.”
12:15 p.m.: Zinke has a conversation with the officer about whose responsibility it is to clear the brush and downed trees in the parks under their jurisdiction:
“Park service is not doing a great job of cleaning up trees. Have you noticed that? Lot of trees down in the woods. Just letting trees rot in the ground.”
12:17 p.m.: Zinke asks, “Can we go to Arlington?” pointing across the Memorial Bridge to the military cemetery. The officer merges onto the bridge and the secretary notes that this specific bridge under his jurisdiction is in need of $250 million worth of repairs. As the squad car rolls into Arlington we pass the typical stopping point for any visiting vehicle. The guards stationed wave us through and we begin climbing all the way up to the top lookout point above the cemetery, where General Robert E. Lee's former residence sits.
12:20 p.m.: We arrive at Lee's house, iconically sitting atop the tallest hill in Arlington National Cemetery. Zinke gets out of the squad car and removes his flak jacket to walk around. The secretary takes me on a tour of the house, pointing to badly peeling paint and broken glass windows. The secretary, clearly disgusted at the state of the building, says this:
“If you look at the condition of the house, it's terrible. It should never have devolved to the state it's in. This is hallowed ground. Enormously important to American history. You would never let your house devolve into this condition. I've seen the neglect of battlefields before and it always irritated me. Now I'm in charge. The buck stops at my desk.”
I ask the secretary if, as a veteran, he takes the ill-repair of Arlington National Cemetery personally.
“I think it's a national disgrace that things have been neglected this far. This didn't happen overnight. That's why I'm personally going out into the field to look at our battlefields and parks.”
Zinke tells me that there are a record number of people using national parks today and that 330 million people visited parks under his jurisdiction last year. He describes the enormous amount of infrastructure funding need for upkeep of these parks and tells me the motto of his tenure as secretary will be “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” the same motto Teddy Roosevelt had inscribed in Yellowstone.
12:45 p.m.: We load back into the squad car. I ask Zinke about having control of a large police force in today's hyper-charged political environment. Zinke describes how Park Police need to be seen as a “happy force”:
“I want [our police] to seen as the happy force. We're the helpful force. Kids should not be afraid of us. Kids should want to be us. We're teaching our kids fear of law enforcement. Our force needs to not be a face of fear but of service. People should want their kids to become police officers.”
I ask about the larger confrontation with the Cliven Bundy Ranch, which embroiled forces under the previous Interior secretary in controversy:
“We have Bureau of Land Management. We have Fish and Wildlife. When people see our forces out there they should think 'land management.' They should not be thinking 'Am I going to be harassed? Am I going to get a ticket?' I'm really sensitive to making sure trust is restored out there and that we have the right balance. We need to defuse the anger and make sure we have trust.”
1:02 p.m.: We pull up in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Zinke walks up to the base of the Memorial, making small talk with the officers guarding it. Various snow clearing machines plow the sidewalks in front of the monument, which is roped off with yellow caution tape. In spite of the freezing weather, wind, and snow, a large number of tourists linger outside the memorial, waiting for the National Park Service to clear the ice and snow from the steps.
1:11 p.m.: Zinke promptly hops the tape in front of the monument and climbs the steps. Officers yell after the boyishly-curious secretary, “Be careful.” The steps are still mostly covered in ice and snow.
Zinke charges inside the memorial, admires the iconic Lincoln statue, and then asks the guards if they can open the mysteriously large brass doors adjacent to the statue.
They do. “I can ask them to open the door and they do it! It's a cool job, man,” an overjoyed Zinke tells me. Inside the door is a safe for long guns, medical kits, a microwave, a break room, and a bathroom for officers on duty.
1:14 p.m.: An officer asks Zinke if he wants to see the rooftop of the memorial. Zinke gives him an enthusiastic “yes” but says he has to do something first. The secretary walks out to the front of the building, stopping to help a few of the officers shovel snow.
He looks down at the waiting tourists and proceeds to cross the tape, introducing himself to two stunned, female tourists. Zinke asks the bewildered mother and daughter if they want to join him on the rooftop of the memorial. They nod.
1:17 PM: Zinke accompanies the two tourists, members of the Campbell family visiting from Atlanta, with a phalanx of police officers back into the Lincoln Memorial and through a side door, which leads to the rooftop. We climb poorly-lit staircase after staircase in a scene reminiscent of “National Treasure.” Exiting to the rooftop reveals a panoramic view of Washington, D.C.
Zinke, who has never been on top of the memorial, is thrilled and takes photos with everyone present.
After a photo session, I ask if he would ever consider shutting down the national parks the way the Obama administration did during the government shutdown in 2013. Zinke said flatly:
“No. What is my job? 'For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.' How does [shutting down the parks] benefit anybody? My boss would back me up, too. Everybody works for somebody, and the president works for the people.”
1:22 p.m.: Zinke is offered an opportunity to tour the cavernous basement of the Lincoln Memorial. He enthusiastically agrees and, on the way to the basement, grabs another family of tourists waiting outside the closed memorial. This time he picked up the five-member Coppell family from Dallas, Texas. The secretary and his tour are taken deep beneath the structure, where we are all amazed at the cavernous, cathedral-like support structure under the memorial.
1:40 p.m.: Zinke gets back into the squad car to continue the drive around to see the location of a police building under construction near the Potomac waterfront. The secretary was asked how he likes living in Washington ,D.C. His response:
“It's fine. Where you get in trouble is when D.C. becomes normal. This place is not normal. The people in it, and how it runs, is not normal. You should never lose the perspective of where you come from.”
Asked about the biggest personal changes he has faced since becoming Interior Secretary:
“I used to complain about the grass being too long when I pass by a park in D.C. Now that's my park! If the trash can is full, it's my fault! It changes your perspective.”
The officer in the car shows Zinke a closed police station, which has been shut down due to a raccoon and asbestos, before returning the secretary to the Department of the Interior building.
“Well, that was fun,” Zinke says after exiting the cop car, shaking the snow off his boots and walking back into his building.
And that is what a ride-along with the Secretary of the Interior during a snowstorm is like.
Editor's Note: This article was updated after publication.