A personalized visit to Joshua Tree National Park. A spin through the West Wing, guided by White House staffers. And a trip to the top of the Lincoln Memorial, which is closed to the public.
Such VIP tours of National Park Service sites, some at the height of the tourist season, came at the request of either Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke or his wife, Lola, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Several excursions were scheduled specifically for friends and acquaintances.
Under both Democratic and Republican presidents, top Interior officials have long given lawmakers and White House officials tours of Park Service sites and other courtesies at the agency’s disposal. Several Obama administration officials — including Vice President Joe Biden — stayed for free at the Brinkerhoff Lodgein Grand Teton National Park, only to reimburse the government later when their visits came under fire after a FOIA disclosure.
Zinke and his aides have offered similar opportunities, while his wife has pressed for such access as well, the records and interviews with current and former Interior employees show.
In the past 14 months, according to documents obtained in separate FOIA requests by The Washington Post and the advocacy group Western Values Project, the Zinkes have arranged for acquaintances and administration officials to get special tours of the Lincoln Memorial, including areas where the public is not allowed. At taxpayer expense, they took a yacht broker — who once sold Lola Zinke a boat — on a work trip to California’s Channel Islands National Park. An aide said the secretary described the man as one of three guests who were “subject matter experts” and could offer “personal testimony” about the area.
Don Hellmann, who headed the Park Service’s office for legislative and congressional affairs for eight of his 22 years with the agency, said in an interview that Zinke and his aides appear to be devoting a disproportionate amount of time to arranging VIP tours.
“What I personally find ironic about this is that they can’t seem to find the time to perform the basic functions of government, such as nominating the director of the National Park Service after not having one for a year and a half,” said Hellmann, who sits on the executive council of the Coalition to Protect America’s Parks. “Yet they seem to find the time to enjoy all the perks that come with the office.”
Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email Thursday that the secretary “uses his own personal time to give tours of the Lincoln Memorialto employees, reporters, and the general public several times per month because he believes the more people who experience our parks, the better.” (Post reporters were invited on a May 1 tour but did not attend because of scheduling conflicts.)
The department did not comment on the involvement of Zinke’s wife. The records released suggest that her interest in booking tours with Park Service rangers — for herself or associates — has raised some internal concerns.
In an email July 4, the secretary’s scheduler Caroline Boulton informed Interior’s director of scheduling and advance at the time, Rusty Roddy said that Lola Zinke had started going “directly” to Elaine Hackett, the Park Service’s congressional liaison for “tours, etc.” As a result, the email noted, the secretary’s staff needed “better communication” with liaison Elaine Hackett.
One day earlier, Hackett appears to have set up a personalized “mini tour” of the Mall for Lola Zinke. On the eve of the capital’s traditional Fourth of July celebration, it was the only Mall tour scheduled that day, according to one email.
Swift herself has questioned how much time park rangers should devote to providing VIPs with special access when tourist demand is high. Last summer, she directed Glacier National Park officials to scale back a visit for Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, leaving Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow and a U.S. Geological Survey climate expert off the itinerary.
At the time, she noted in an email that most of the park’s 3 million visitors come in the summer and that allocating more extensive “government resources to a celebrity would have been a waste of money and a disservice to average parkgoers.”
Ryan Zinke personally arranged two custom White House tours for friends affiliated with the Navy SEAL program last year, according to public records. His scheduler emailed one of the friends to explain, “This isn’t the normal self-led East Wing tour, but are instead led by White House staffers so they can answer any questions and provide background.”
On May 17, 2017, Hackett arranged for “two friends from England” of Lola Zinke’s to get a guided tour of Joshua Tree National Park in California. Writing to park Superintendent David Smith, Hackett confirmed the details of the tour, closing, “You saved my day!!”
And Jon Jorgenson, the yacht broker involved in Lola Zinke’s boat purchase, accompanied her and the secretary on an official tour of the Channel Islands in April 2017. Asked to clarify why Jorgenson should participate in the trip, Interior’s scheduling director told department lawyers that he could “offer personal testimony to help the Secretary understand issues facing the islands.”
The broker did not return a call seeking comment.
While most of the individuals who received personal tours expressed their appreciation of Park Service staffers, at least one person complained after he did not receive the special access Zinke had promised.
The Montana resident, who had dined with the secretary after they ran into each other in March 2017 at a Big Sky fundraiser for Sen. Steve Daines (R), emailed Zinke’s scheduler to explain that he and his wife had been invited to Washington for a VIP visit. “He regaled us with the excitement of seeing what is underneath the Lincoln Memorial, for example,” the man wrote Caroline Boulton.
But after the tour the next month, a follow-up email told Boulton that he was heading home with “great disappointment” because the memorial’s basement had been off limits.
Boulton replied that park staffers were reluctant to allow people there because of safety concerns and that the Park Service had even “turned the Secretary’s wife away once when she went without him to the memorial recently so we are working to try to come to a suitable conclusion with them.”