ST. GEORGE – In the continuing parade of the president-elect’s selection for cabinet-level nominations, the name of a retired U.S. Navy SEAL turned congressman from Montana was put forth as the pick for the new secretary of the Interior Department.
Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke was announced as President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to head the Department of the Interior Wednesday. Utah’s governor and members of the state’s congressional delegations see the potential interior secretary-to-be as an ally, while some environmental groups, such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, aren’t exactly thrilled by the prospect.
The Department of the Interior oversees the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Matters related to energy development, land management, hunting and grazing on public lands lie within its jurisdiction.
Like other Western states, Montana’s wide-open, rugged landscape has a huge federal presence. The Interior Department and other U.S. agencies control almost a third of its land and even more of the underground “mineral estate” that holds vast amounts of coal, oil and natural gas.
As with several other Trump Cabinet nominees, Zinke has advocated for increased energy drilling and mining on those lands and expressed skepticism about the urgency of climate change.
Still, while expressing doubts about climate change, he has said something is nonetheless happening to the climate, according to The Associated Press. He also supports the idea of an energy strategy that utilizes renewable sources like wind and solar power.
The Republican lawmaker, who describes himself as a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” also has been a vocal supporter of keeping public lands in the government’s hands. That’s a central political issue in Montana, where hunting and fishing access is considered sacrosanct.
Montana boasts the largest coal reserves in the nation. Zinke has warned environmentalists and the Obama administration that to take coal out of the energy mix would be “a disaster.”
“I don’t agree with keeping it in the ground,” he said in a political debate.
In relation to keeping public lands under federal control, the Montana representative has voiced opposition to transferring management from the federal government to the states – an issue Utah lawmakers have threatened to sue over.
Zinke resigned as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in July over the GOP’s adding language supporting the transfer of public lands to the states to the platform.
He also voted against a bill put forth by Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young that would have allowed states to buy up to 2 million acres of federal land for logging.
“I’m starting to wonder how many times I have to tell these guys in leadership I’m not going to allow Montana’s public lands to be sold or given away,” Zinke said in a statement following the vote made in July. “Two million acres is a lot, even in Montana. The federal government needs to do a much better job of managing our resources, but the sale or transfer of our land is an extreme proposal and I won’t tolerate it.”
The thought that the next potential i
nterior secretary may be unsympathetic to Utah’s efforts to gain management of public lands is “spin,” Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said Thursday during Gov. Gary Herbert’s monthly press conference on KUED.
Specifically, Bishop said parties opposed to the idea of transferring management of the public lands had spun Zinke’s words to match their own narrative.
“Give him a chance to say what he actually wants to do,” Bishop said.
Zinke is a member of the House Natural Resources committee, the same committee Bishop chairs.
“He’ll work with us,” Bishop said, adding that Zinke will put people first and seek to help improve how the federal government oversees the public lands.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, was also in attendance at the governor’s press conference and said Zinke’s appointment would be good for Utah.
“This is a person who has a very conservative approach,” Chaffetz said. The idea of engaging local populations in relation to public lands management and how it may affect them also resonates with Zinke, he said.
Herbert said Utah lawmakers are not advocating for a transfer of lands in order to privatize them as some accuse. Rather, they want the federal government to engage much more with local communities and the state in order “to have the most optimal management plan in place.”
“It’s public lands in Utah – it will always be public lands,” Herbert said, yet added those public lands should be managed under the principle of multiple use, and not limited to one-use categories such as tourism or wilderness.
Zinke’s nomination for interior secretary was met with concern by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, an environmental and conservation advocacy group.
Scott Green, SUWA’s executive director, issued the following statement Thursday:
The Secretary of the Interior is a critical administration post for America’s public lands. The Secretary oversees the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service. This position matters.
President-elect Trump’s appointments to date for positions such as State and Energy have been atrocious and represent a repudiation of our nation’s efforts to address the very real threat of climate change. We have concerns Mr. Zinke is cut from the same cloth.
During his brief stint in Congress, Rep. Zinke has voted for the environment a paltry 3 (percent) of the time, according to the League of Conservation Voters. He has voted to undermine wilderness, according to the Montana Wilderness Association. He is viewed as a strong proponent of fossil fuel development.
While Rep. Zinke has made statements that he opposes wholesale efforts to transfer federal lands to state ownership, he has also voted to increase local control over public land.
We are encouraged Rep. Zinke is an outdoorsman and has stated his appreciation for the backcountry. At least until more information is available, we will give him the benefit of the doubt and seek a positive working relationship.
Zinke spent 23 years as a Navy SEAL, serving in Iraq, Kosovo and elsewhere. He was awarded two Bronze Stars for combat missions in Iraq. He is also described as an avid outdoorsman. He currently serves on the House Natural Resources and Armed Services committees and describes himself as “a steadfast advocate for Montana veterans and military personnel and families.”
Associated Press writers Matthew Brown Julie Pace, Ken Thomas and Matthew Daly in Washington and Matt Volz in Butte, Montana, contributed to this report.
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