Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke said he watched President Trump transform right before his eyes.
"I was with the president when Chief Owens came home to Dover. What I saw was a changed commander in chief," he said.
Zinke accompanied Trump to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in February, where the bodies of slain Americans return from foreign battlefields. Zinke and Trump had gone to observe the return of Chief Special Warfare Operator William "Ryan" Owens, a Navy SEAL killed in Yemen.
The moment marked the first time the 45th president witnessed the real human toll of a presidential decision to send troops into combat. Owens was the first combat casualty of the Trump era.
In a recent Oval Office interview with the Washington Examiner, the president described the moment of Owens' return as both sad and beautiful: "It was very tough. That is the toughest part of the job. You are dealing with lives. And it is tough every time I call somebody."
Zinke said that was the moment he saw Trump visibly change.
"It is one thing to talk about the roles and responsibilities; it is another thing to see it," he said. "He saw clearly that the consequence of his decisions has an effect on families, has an effect on the spouse and the family that was there."
Something was noticeably different when he saw the president the next morning at the National Prayer Breakfast, he said, "and I could tell … ."
Zinke sits in his spacious office at the Interior Department, just off the National Mall, a room filled with artifacts and taxidermy treasures, such as the head of a buffalo from "the 1906 last herd" and an enormous grizzly bear.
The fifth-generation Montanan is the first from that state to serve in a presidential Cabinet. His direct order from the president, he recalls, was to lead.
"He is a great boss. He says, 'Win! Make sure what you do, you do well. And make sure that you operate it in the best interest of the public' ... but he expects results."
Trump told the former Navy SEAL, Montana state senator and U.S. congressman to "look at regulation that doesn't make sense and to look at my organization to update it."
He has three goals that he hopes to achieve while serving in Trump's Cabinet, starting with restoring people's trust in the government.
"We want to make sure that the public views the Department of Interior as an advocate rather than an adversary, as collaborative in nature, helpful, and as stewards," he said.
His second focus is the Interior Department's infrastructure: "When I talk about the [National] Park System so much ... the [department's] other divisions say, 'What about me, too?'
"But, for much of the country, the face of the Department of Interior is our parks. So I talk about the parks more only because it is storefront, to a degree, to the department."
Zinke oversees an expansive department of 70,000 employees who administer the majority of all federal public lands; it includes the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Water Reclamation, U.S. Geological Survey and Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the National Park Service.
"A lot of our public lands were meant for the betterment and enjoyment of the people. In perpetuity," he said. "That means better management."
Which leads to his third goal: stewardship.
"As we look at the Department of Interior, there are some issues and challenges before us that we need to correct," he said. "A lot of it is, we need to be more collaborative in nature with local communities.
"We need to work with states more and not be so heavy-handed. We need to reorganize on the basis of ecosystems because we are siloed sometimes, even within the Department of Interior."
The Fish and Wildlife Service may not talk with the National Park Service, which may not talk with the Bureau of Land Management, and so on, he said. "And, really, we are in the business of preserving, protecting, using our public lands for the benefit and enjoyment of the people, and we can do better taking a model of what the military did with their joint commands."
He envisions all of the department's bureaus working together to integrate their oversight and management responsibilities; the technology to make that happen already exists, he adds.
He is looking for opportunities for public-private partnerships, too. "Our public lands are not for sale — that is clear," he stressed, "but there are opportunities within our parks system to look at our transportation systems, because our parks had record-breaking numbers last year, 330 million visitors."
When it comes to managing parks that are at capacity, his solution is simple: Look at them from a holistic ecosystem model.
One idea he is considering would involve professionally run public transportation operating within the parks to provide greater access for more people while preserving the park experience.
"My job now is to make sure, when I go to a park, I expect the bathrooms to be clean, I expect the litter to be picked up, I expect the forest to be managed well, and I expect the experience of the park to be five-star. World-class. Period."
He also is blunt about what he expects from the parks' workforce. "I expect the rangers to be in the right uniforms and to understand that they represent not only the face of the Department of Interior but our greatest majesties and our greatest treasures."
Maintaining high standards, he explained, is essential to providing a world-class parks experience. But it is equally important "to understand that legacy and how the legacy can be used for national strength."
The horse he rode in on
The avid outdoorsman literally galloped on horseback to his first day on the job in March.
Zinke arrived at the C Street headquarters of the Department of Interior on Tonto, an Irish sport horse, accompanied by a nine-person mounted police escort; although the Park Police act as the Interior secretary's official detail, they typically aren't on horseback.
The horse-riding gesture was a tip of Zinke's hat to his boyhood hero, Teddy Roosevelt.
"I have Roosevelt's book that he wrote on national strength and how our public lands can be used for jobs," he said, pointing to a well-preserved copy of the former president's book.
"Whether it is for recreation or whether it is energy ... they are not in conflict with each other."
He has another inspiration as he begins the task, which he calls his responsibility, of protecting those public lands.
"You know, as a Boy Scout you are always taught that when you camp, you look at your fire, at your campsite, and you leave it in as good or better condition than how you found it.
"And that is stewardship."