A spokesman for wild lands and rivers met one on one with newly minted Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke recently in a wild and scenic place in New Mexico. Brett Myrick, a former Navy SEAL and wilderness advocate, was given an opportunity to meet and take a short hike in the Organ Mountains National Monument with Mr. Zinke, along with a dozen other veterans working on behalf of public lands. Myrick immediately followed up his meeting with the Secretary by issuing an Op-Ed to the national media which was published by The Hill, an influential political journal working inside the beltway in Washington DC.
Secretary Zinke was in nearby Las Cruces to inspect the monument — one of the most recently dedicated under president Obama — with a mandate from the Trump administration to inspect lands under National Monument designation to assess value to both natural resource and local communities. Zinke, a former veteran and SEAL himself, was previously an elected US senator from Montana who ran on a platform of sportsman's rights and wilderness preservation before his cabinet appointment. Montana has some of the most progressive public stream access laws in the country, which have been hard fought for decades by a committed electorate.
The Gila river in southwestern NM, about 100 miles from the Organ Mountains and home to the rare Gila Trout, has been front and center in the fight for wild and scenic rivers, as it's source is in the center of the Gila Wilderness, which was the first Wilderness designated in the US. Myrick has been advocating for the Gila for over twenty years himself, recognizing the unique value it brings to the region. He is more than qualified to speak to the issue — in addition to his veteran status as a SEAL Team 5 founding member, he is a direct descendant of New Mexico's fourth governor, Octaviano A. Larrazolo, and carries Cherokee and Sioux blood in his veins. Myrick was on site at Standing Rock over the last winter as well, fighting for water protections outside of his home state.
In an exclusive interview for Fly Fisherman, I met with Myrick to discuss his meeting with Secretary Zinke. Now in his mid-50's, Myrick still makes an impression, with shoulder length hair and an air that he can handle himself. This belies a soft spoken but direct communication style. As Secretary Zinke has come under fire for almost immediately reversing some of his Montana campaign platform positions after signing on with the new administration, I wanted to get a sense of how he comes across away from the glare of the media.
Fly Fisherman: "So, Brett, this was a pretty rare opportunity for a guy from the boonies to meet with a cabinet official. How did that come down?"
Myrick: "I've been advocating for public lands in New Mexico for a long time, and I guess I'm known around here for speaking out about it. I've made testimony in public hearings that were covered by the local press right on up to the state level, and have even made a couple trips to Washington DC to speak with senate subcommittee staffers on Environment and Public Works. This opened the door for me to get to talk with actual US Senators like Tom Udall. The issues surrounding the endangerment of the Gila River are nationally known, and the community that showed up across the valley in Las Cruces have historically shown commitment to that as well. There is an impression that the Gila is a big river that can be drawn on endlessly, and it's really not. It's just a tiny little desert stream, but one that has huge value for the entire southwest — biologically, economically, spiritually."
"As Ryan Zinke campaigned as a vet himself, our group here in New Mexico felt we could speak his language and get across how important these resources are to us. And not just to us, but everybody. Folks here are for real outdoors people, they hike and hunt and fish hard."
FF: "So, you were chosen to take point with him based on your military status? Did you try and nail him down on addressing your group's specific concerns?"
Myrick: "No, it wasn't like that — we didn't pull the veterans card. Like I said, these places are for everybody, and veterans are part of the community — a community we served. We all just hung out and tried to show him how much we enjoy ourselves out there, and hopefully he did too."
FF: "Ok, right. But you have to think that if he took the time to even come out with you guys, he's indicating he's going to be in your corner when he goes back to Washington. I mean, you've got a picture of him with his arm around you. "
Myrick: "I suppose, and that was the hope, of course. But what's concerning is that there was a massive town hall meeting in Las Cruces the day before our outing, where something like 800 people showed up in support of the monument. While he was invited, Mr. Zinke chose instead to meet with 30 local ranchers in a closed door setting. You've got to wonder what was said in that room while a huge crowd of people downtown were waiting to hear what he had to think about an issue they obviously feel so strongly about. Maybe he didn't realize the town hall held as many people as it does, I don't know."
FF: "So, was this this the reason you wrote that Op-Ed piece? It's pretty diplomatic, but it's not exactly a thank you note either — I'd say it's a call to action on his part."
Myrick: "Sure. You have to maintain the dialogue however you can. Look, getting the chance to meet with the Secretary of the Interior of the United States was a big deal for us, but to just let it drop there without getting to where the people want this to go would be weak. Until this is resolved to everyone's satisfaction, this is an ongoing conversation. The American way, you know?"
The people of New Mexico will wait on word of Ryan Zinke's report to congress on the fate of national monuments in this country. If and when Secretary Zinke returns, it will be telling to see if he brings a backpack and a fly rod, or is followed by a bulldozer and a drilling crew. Until that time, and in either case, Brett Myrick will be waiting on the banks of the Gila River to greet
Brett Myrick's environmental advocacy has to date been entirely self-supported Please consider making a donation to his GoFundMe page to help keep his initiatives on the road and in front of our elected officials.