Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Roots of Zinke’s Rise

A decade ago, Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer pressed a bronze star to the dress-white lapels of a Navy SEAL commander during a ceremony at the Whitefish Lake Golf Club, a stone’s throw from where the serviceman was raised and just north of where Schweitzer farmed mint for nearly 20 years before taking office. Both men shared close ties to Whitefish and a deep appreciation for the wide expanses of public land and soaring mountains that gird the community, and both stoked white-hot political ambitions in their bellies. Those fires have continued to burn ever since. In a prophetic gesture after the 2006 ceremony, the commander, a Whitefish native named Ryan Zinke who had recently returned from combat in Iraq, quipped to guests that he intended to stake out a bid for the governor’s job, multiple ceremony attendees recall. Those political stars never aligned, but two years later, Zinke, a Republican now serving as Montana’s lone congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives and who President-elect Donald Trump recently appointed to serve as interior secretary, began his rapid ascent up the political pecking order by launching a successful bid for the Montana Senate, rolling out a blueprint for a campaign that his early advisors and friends recall as smart, principled and calculated...Before Zinke was a Congressman and an appointee to the president’s inner circle, he was a boy in Whitefish, a standout high school football player, a wrestler, and an Eagle Scout whose service project centered on studying pollutants leaching from the nearby rail yard into the Whitefish River near his boyhood home. In his new memoir, “American Commander,” published last month, Zinke recalls how the project prompted an early interest in conservation. “The project I chose was to follow the banks of the river and look at the sources of any pollution or runoff. “I took pictures of the railroad’s oil holding ponds and looked at how the ponds of oil would overflow into the river. I looked at the storm drains dumping in the river, took soil samples, and proposed solutions to the degree a young student could. “When an old logger downstream was mowing his lawn and caused a spark, which caused the river to catch on fire, I knew the source. The project promoted a lifetime of conservation values.”...While Zinke broke from the pack in his first term as the lone House Republican to support preservation of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and opposed transferring the management of federal lands to states’ control — a view many conservationists hold with inviolable sanctity — he has also opposed a new rule to reduce the emission of the greenhouse gas methane during energy production on public land and a moratorium on new coal leasing. He was co-sponsor of the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015, which a coalition of Montana sportsmen, timber leaders, outfitters, business owners, and conservationists decried as out of sync with the brand of collaboration-driven forest management solution that best suits Montana interests...But roll the clock back to 2008, when Zinke was launching his bid to represent the district of Whitefish in the Montana Legislature, and a different figure emerges. Steve Thompson of Glacier Climate Action was a founding chairman of the Montana chapter of the League of Conservation Voters, and in 2008 the then-unknown Navy SEAL approached him seeking a pro-conservation endorsement from the organization. Having seen other so-called “green Republicans” blanch under the pressure of elected political office and turn on their conservation values in the face of partisan pressure, Thompson expressed skepticism. Zinke, however, assured the environmental advocate that he wasn’t one to buckle under pressure. “He kind of puffed up and told me that he was a Navy SEAL and nobody was going to push him around,” Thompson said. “He drove a Prius at the time and he stood up for clean air and water. He was good on energy issues and climate science. He convinced me.”...Bob Lawson represented the greater Whitefish area in House District 80 as a Republican from 1997 to 2004 and prior to that worked as assistant principal at Whitefish High School, where Zinke was a student. Lawson sat in on early strategic meetings during Zinke’s state senate run and said, in his mind, the Congressman has remained true to his roots as a self-proclaimed “Teddy Roosevelt Republican.” “I think he is firm, fair and consistent,” Lawson said. “He has always pictured himself as a Teddy Roosevelt Republican conservationist. From the first time we ever talked about politics, that has been one of his mainstays. It’s not simply lip service. He believes in it.”...more

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