Editor’s note [03/01/2017]: On March 1, the Senate confirmed Ryan Zinke as Interior Secretary. Read the resurfaced article below for insight into Zinke’s views on public lands and the environment.
Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of the Interior, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke (R), started his confirmation hearing Tuesday by aligning himself with one of the giants of American conservation. “Upfront, I am an unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt,” Zinke said, adding that Roosevelt “had it right” when he protected millions of acres of federal lands and created the U.S. Forest Service. With a right-wing movement to wrestle control of public lands from the federal government gaining momentum, Zinke’s rhetoric offered conservationists some measure of comfort.
The question now, many say, is whether Zinke will walk—not just talk—like Roosevelt, balancing conservation and development on public lands. “While he continues to paint himself as a modern Teddy Roosevelt, his very short voting record shows him repeatedly siding with industry,” says the Sierra Club’s Matthew Kirby, who works on western public lands issues. According to the League of Conservation Voters, only 3 percent of Zinke’s votes in Congress qualify as “pro-environment,” Oil and gas organizations like the Western Energy Alliance and the Independent Petroleum Association of America applauded Zinke’s nomination, but conservation-minded hunting and fishing groups welcomed it, too. Zinke, in other words, is a bit hard to box in.
If confirmed, he will be responsible for a large and diverse department. Most of the federal agencies responsible for managing public lands and wildlife are housed within the Department of the Interior, including the National Park Service; the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages lands for recreation, mining and energy development; and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which works to recover endangered species. The department oversees 500 million acres in total, or about a fifth of the land in the U.S.
Most of that land lies in the U.S. West, and it is an unwritten rule that the Interior secretary post goes to a westerner. Zinke has served only one term in Congress and does not have a deep record on natural resources policy, but he is an outdoorsman who learned to hunt on public lands and therefore recognizes their value for recreation and wildlife. He is also from a state where fossil-fuel production on public lands is a cornerstone of the economy, and he believes Pres. Barack Obama’s administration has been too tough on the industry.
Zinke’s views on easing energy development on public lands seem largely in line with his party. During Tuesday’s hearing, for instance, Zinke told Sen. John Barrasso he would support the Wyoming Republican’s effort to scrap a recently finalized BLM rule to limit methane waste from oil and gas drilling. Methane is a greenhouse gas as well as a source of energy, but it is often vented or burned as waste in drilling fields where the infrastructure does not exist to capture it and move it to market. The BLM rule would limit venting and flaring, and allow taxpayers to earn royalties on methane now treated as waste. Industry opposes the rule as unnecessary and expensive whereas environmental groups and the Obama administration say it is common sense.
Peter Aengst, who works in Montana with the Wilderness Society, says the methane rule is one of the ways in which the Obama administration tried to modernize energy policy on public lands. “The Trump administration has vowed to unravel those (reforms),” he says. “That’s where I think Ryan Zinke is probably most concerning for those of us who care about the wise management of our public lands.”
Zinke’s stances on some other big issues he will face as head of Interior are much murkier. He said Tuesday that he would work to restore trust between federal land managers and local communities, promising to be a “listener” rather than a “deaf adversary.” He repeatedly emphasized the need for more collaboration between the feds and locals. But as a congressman he opposed the Obama administration’s attempt to collaborate with states to keep the greater sage grouse from being listed under the Endangered Species Act. The bird is found in 11 western states, and a listing could have led to significant restrictions on land use across more than a hundred million acres. Instead, the administration developed state-based conservation plans that built on existing state efforts to protect the bird. “It’s an unprecedented engagement that happened with private landowners and with state agencies to make sure that bird was not listed,” says Land Tawney, president of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, a Montana-based group that advocates for public lands access and wildlife protections. “Those plans need to be implemented.” Zinke dodged a question on how he would handle sage grouse protections at his hearing.
It is similarly unclear where he will come down on controversial national monuments designated by Obama, such as Bears Ears. Utah’s congressional delegation is pressuring Trump to rescind the monument—an unprecedented, and possibly illegal, move—and Zinke would presumably be a close adviser on any changes to the monument.
Both Aengst and Tawney are encouraged by a few of Zinke’s other positions, particularly his flat opposition to selling or transferring public lands to states or private interests, along with his support for permanently authorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which funnels oil and gas royalties to projects that promote recreation, wildlife habitat, parks and wilderness. Zinke also said addressing the maintenance backlog at national parks would be one of his top priorities, indicating that money to keep up roads, trails and toilets in the parks should be included in the infrastructure bill President-Elect Donald Trump has promised. All in all, Tawney is optimistic, and expects sportsmen to have a voice in Zinke’s Interior Department. “He’s a straight shooter,” Tawney says. “We’re not going to agree on everything but at least you know where he sits and we can have a conversation.”
Others in the conservation community remain skeptical. Kirby argues that opposition to selling off public lands should be a prerequisite for any Interior secretary, not a note of distinction. “You don’t get brownie points for that.”
But context does matter. In a different political climate it might not have been newsworthy that Zinke went on record Tuesday saying climate change was not “a hoax” and humans had a role in causing it. Similarly, opposition to disposing of federal lands was not a given among the candidates Trump considered for the job.
Zinke is expected to be easily confirmed by the Senate.