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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, March 14, 2018 1:00 am

Zinke defends plan to raise park fees

Associated Press

WASHINGTON  – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke bristled Tuesday under questioning by Democrats about his travel spending as the Trump administration seeks deep cuts to conservation programs and fee increases at national parks.

Zinke testified before a Senate committee about the agency's proposed $11.7 billion budget for 2019.

He has proposed doubling entry fees during peak seasons at some of the nation's most popular national parks to help make up for an $11 billion backlog in needed maintenance. Meanwhile, an Interior advisory committee has proposed cutting royalty fees paid by energy companies to drill for oil and natural gas in federal waters.

Zinkie flashed with anger when the Energy and Natural Resources Committee's ranking Democrat pressed him on whether he could justify increasing access fees when he has spent taxpayer money on chartered flights. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington asked Zinke if it was a mistake to spend $12,375 on a June trip from Las Vegas to Montana on a private jet.

“Well, first, insults and innuendos are misleading. I never took a private jet anywhere,” Zinke said, adding that all three flights he had taken on private planes driven by propellers, not jet engines.

Zinke also referenced a report last week by The Associated Press that the Interior Department is spending nearly $139,000 to upgrade three sets of doors in his office at the agency's headquarters.

“I resent the fact of your insults, I resent the fact they're misleading, I resent the fact of the doors,” Zinke said. “And I'll go through line by line. ... To allege that it's a private jet is inappropriate, ma'am.”

Records show he also spent more than $53,000 on three helicopter trips last summer, one to Washington so he could take a horseback ride with Vice President Mike Pence.