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.
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...
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... 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.”
...Zinke is expected to be easily confirmed by the Senate.