Senate confirms Zinke as Interior secretary amid Utah’s monument fight

In this file photo, Interior Secretary-nominee, Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, testifies on Capitol Hill. Zinke gained confirmation as the nation’s next Interior secretary, responsible for more than 400 million acres of public land, mostly in the West. Washington, D.C., Jan 17, 2017 | Photo by J. Scott Applewhite (AP), File, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke was confirmed Wednesday by the Senate to be the next Secretary of the Interior. He is the latest member of President Donald Trump’s cabinet to be confirmed and will have oversight over the United State’s 400 million acres of public land.

Zinke, 55, won the confirmation in a 68-31 vote, with 16 Democrats and one independent joining with 51 Republicans to support the choice. With Zinke’s approval, the Senate has confirmed 16 out of 22 of Trump’s cabinet and cabinet-level nominations.

File photo: Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, speaks with a supporter in Billings, Montana, as he campaigns for re-election. Zinke was confirmed by the Senate Wednesday to be the next Interior secretary, Billings, Montana, Oct. 20, 2016 | AP Photo by Matthew Brown, St. George News

The former Navy SEAL’s confirmation comes in the middle of the ongoing push by Utah lawmakers to gain state control of public lands and efforts to shrink one national monument and potentially undo another.

Last month Gov. Gary Herbert signed two resolutions related to the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments. The first pushes for federal legislation that would reduce the size of the 20-year-old monument, while the second urges the president to rescind the state’s newest national monument.

Zinke has been invited to visit Utah following his confirmation as Secretary of Interior at the “earliest opportunity,” Herbert said Tuesday.

State officials have expressed enthusiasm over Zinke’s pending appointment believing they may be able to draw sympathy from the new interior secretary who they think will understand Utah’s challenges regarding public lands.

As a fellow Westerner who understands our way of life, Ryan Zinke is the right choice to lead the Interior Department,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a statement Wednesday. He continued:

“Under his leadership, I am confident that the Department will be committed to an inclusive approach to land management that values the voices of Utahns and respects our role in stewarding the lands we know and love. In particular, he understands the enormous damage inflicted on our communities by the abuse of the Antiquities Act.

I look forward to working with Secretary Zinke and the President to undo the harm caused by the unilateral designations of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.”

FILE – In this Sept. 18, 1996, file photo, Vice President Al Gore applauds after President Bill Clinton signs a bill designating about 1.7 million acres of land in Southern Utah’s red-rock cliff area as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, at the Grand Canyon National Park, in Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, Sept. 18, 1996 | AP Photo/Doug Mills, St. George News

Zinke has expressed views contrary to the push for state control of public lands, however

He resigned as a delegate to the Republican National Convention last year to protest the GOP’s position in favor of land transfers to state or private groups.

Still, his stance on public lands has come into question in recent weeks after he voted in favor of a House rule that would allow federal land transfers to be considered cost-free and budget-neutral, making it easier for drilling and development.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance noted Zinke’s stance toward public lands in a statement Wednesday urging people to contact the new Interior Secretary about supporting Bears Ears. SUWA stated:

“There is still time to persuade Sec. Zinke to go the right way on this. He’s from Montana, he reportedly has a good relationship with tribes, and he has repeatedly expressed his admiration for Teddy Roosevelt — the president who first used and advocated for the Antiquities Act. He has also said he opposes the transfer of federal lands. … We’re not sure which version of Zinke we’ll see on this issue, but we’re betting if he hears from you, he’ll find it difficult to attack Bears Ears.”

Zinke has been invited by both sides of the Bears Ears debate to visit San Juan County and view the new monument first hand.

Among those extending an invitation is the Utah Diné Bikéyah band of the Navajo. The Diné Bikéyah issued a statement congratulating Zinke on his confirmation, while also voicing their hope he will support and protect Bear’s Ears’ monument status. The statement reads:

File photo: In this file photo:, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell looks at the “Moonhouse” in McLoyd Canyon, near Blanding, Utah, during a tour to meet with proponents and opponents to the “Bears Ears” monument proposal. President Barack Obama designated two national monuments Wednesday, Dec. 28, at sites in Utah and Nevada that have become key flashpoints over use of public land in the U.S. West, Blanding, Utah, July 15, 2016 | AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File, St. George News

“Utah Diné Bikéyah congratulates Ryan Zinke on his appointment as the newest Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. On behalf of an overwhelming majority of Native American people who live in and around San Juan County, Utah, UDB extends a warm welcome to Zinke to come visit Bears Ears National Monument and meet with us on-reservation with community members and tribal leaders to discuss the necessity of maintaining protection for Bears Ears National Monument.”

UDB Chairman Willie Grayeyes remarked, “We look forward to working with Secretary Zinke and sharing with him the healing power of Bears Ears National Monument. Bears Ears must remain protected. As local Native people and San Juan County residents, we fully expect Secretary Zinke to honor the government-to-government relationship by meeting with our elected leaders and listening to Native peoples. Our sovereign tribal nations unanimously embrace and support Bears Ears National Monument.”

During a confirmation hearing, Zinke said he has great respect for the Native American tribes and that their voices should be heard and respected.

“We expect Secretary Zinke to stand by his word,” Grayeyes said.

Zinke also pledged to work with members of Congress on monument designations, noting the strong opposition to Bears Ears by Utah’s congressional delegation and governor.

I think the state should have a say on it,” he said.

As the new Secretary of the Interior, Utah officials are hoping Zinke considers Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, to be the next director of the Bureau of Land Management.

Associated Press reporter Matthew Daly and St. George News / Cedar City News reporter Tracie Sullivan contributed to this story.

Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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