Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, at head of table, with Bureau of Indian Affairs employees in March 2017. Photo U.S. Indian Affairs

Secretary Zinke compared Interior to a pirate ship in speech coming under fire

Democrats and conservation groups are slamming Secretary Ryan Zinke after he said 30 percent of employees at the Department of the Interior aren't loyal to "the flag."

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Arizona), the top Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources, called on Zinke to apologize for his comments. ""He often refers to his military service so he should be well aware that loyalty is earned and you don’t earn it, or deserve it, with divisive comments like these," the lawmaker said in a press release.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was equally critical. She said Interior's 70,000 employees "deserve respect from the man charged with leading them—not cheap shots in the press."

"Zinke's remark is the opposite of patriotism. Feds are loyal to America, not junior cabinet secretaries and politicians," Walter Shaub, the former head of the Office of Government Ethics who left his post after questioning the Trump administration's openness, added in a post on Twitter as three conservation groups described the comments as "disrespectful."

"Saying that over 20,000 employees in his department are 'not loyal to the flag' is simply ludicrous, and deeply insulting," the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, the Public Lands Foundation and the Association of Retired Fish and Wildlife Service Employees said in a joint statement.

Zinke's comments came during a meeting of the National Petroleum Council in Washington, D.C., on Monday. His compared the department, whose workforce includes a significant number of tribal citizens, to a pirate ship, The Associated Press reported.

“I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag," Zinke told the industry group, the AP reported.

According to data from 2014, 5,116 American Indians and Alaska Natives worked at the Department of the Interior. Source: Office of Personnel and Management

During the speech, ZInke suggested that a reorganization of the department, would address the allegedly disloyal employees. But a spokesperson did not respond to requests for follow-up, The Washington Post said.

The department's workforce includes about 6,770 employees at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and another 655 or so work at the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians. The overwhelming majority at these two agencies are Native Americans.

In 2014, about 9.6 percent of Interior's employees were American Indians or Alaska Natives, according to the Office of Personnel and Management. Another 0.4 percent were Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.

The percentage of American Indians and Alaska Natives at the department has declined in recent years as the BIA has reduced its workforce. The agency once boasted upwards of 10,000 employees but the figure has dropped in the last two decades due to a variety of factors, including budget cuts and stagnation, attrition of employees and tribes taking on more functions through self-determination contracts and self-governance compacts.

Read More on the Story:
Interior chief’s loyalty comments draw widespread criticism (The Associated Press September 26, 2017)
Zinke says a third of Interior’s staff is disloyal to Trump and promises ‘huge’ changes (The Washington Post September 26, 2017)

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Secretary Zinke claims 30 percent of Interior employees aren't loyal to 'the flag' (September 26, 2017)