How will Ryan Zinke manage federal lands as head of the Interior Department?

Once seen as a moderate Republican, Zinke's recent record in Congress casts doubt on his conservation stances, critics say.

Among Trump’s controversial cabinet picks, U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke (R-MT) appears to have some amount of bipartisan accord. Nominated for Department of Interior Secretary, Zinke hails from a state with 37% of its lands under some kind of public management.

But he wasn’t the first pick. Initially, news reports, Utility Dive included, pegged U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) to head the DOI, but that later proved not to be the case. Her track record was decidedly more conservative, especially with her support to auction off public lands.

Conversely, Zinke’s biggest bipartisan appeal lies in his open support of keeping federal lands in the hands of government agencies as several of his House colleagues push for state control. Environmentalists and climate activists are more skeptical of his stance over climate change mitigation and his pro-fossil fuel interests. But his Republican allies and a well-known conservation group speak highly of his track record dealing with public lands.

“We have followed him since he was elected to Congress and found him to be for industry and development but also for conservation,” Whit Fosburgh, who heads the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, told Utility Dive.

The organization is a 15-year-old nonprofit coalition of hunting, fishing, conservation, and environmental organizations committed to preserving the public's lands and resources.

“Ryan Zinke is somebody we can have an honest dialogue with and he gets the importance of conserving public lands. There is no doubt we will disagree but I am confident in his willingness to listen and understand our positions.”

Whit Fosburgh

President and CEO, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

Environmentalists in Zinke’s home state of Montana are more dubious.

“He started as a moderate Republican but turned sharply right and has voted against the environment and for pipeline and coal development projects ever since,” Anne Hedges, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) told Utility Dive. “This is not the person we want in charge of our public lands.”

Longtime state Senator Duane Ankney, who pushed bills to protect the Colstrip coal plant from shutting down, spoke highly of his former colleague: “He is a fairly moderate guy and, above all, he has airtight integrity.”

Ankney served with Zinke from 2009 until Zinke was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014.

“He will represent the people of the U.S. in a very honorable way,” Ankney added. He has a different “path” than Obama DOI head Sally Jewell “but it will not lead to destroying our natural resources.”

Democratic state Senator Cliff Larsen served four years with Zinke in Montana's Legislature and, like the nominee, is a military veteran. “I respect him and I consider him a friend, though we have political differences,” Larsen said. “He has definitely moved to the right since he was elected to Congress two years ago but it is necessary in that world.”

Zinke was more “straightforward” in Montana and has shown “more equivocation” as a congressman, Larsen said. “But we could do a lot worse for someone to manage our natural resources and federal lands and wildlife from that side of the aisle." 

Yet given Zinke’s recent move to support a measure that would make it easier to transfer federal public lands to states, it remains to be seen if he will align with Trump’s position on keeping public lands public.

Who is Ryan Zinke?

Ryan Zinke is a fifth-generation Montanan, which is considered a badge of honor in the Big Sky State. Born in Whitefish, Montana in 1961, he grew up just an hour away from Glacier National Park. Graduating with a degree in geology from the University of Oregon in 1984, he joined the U.S. Navy a year later. Zinke served in the Navy for 23 years, eventually working his way up to become a Navy SEAL commando.

He later penned a memoir detailing his military exploits as a top-ranking and highly decorated member. After his stint in the Navy was done, he chose to serve in Montana’s State Senate for four years until he made a bid for the state’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014. He won and later also won his re-election bid in 2016.

During his first term in the House, he served on the Natural Resources Committee and its Energy and Mineral Resources and Federal Lands subcommittees. These assignments gave him experience in the kind of public lands jurisdictions and responsibilities he would have at the DOI if confirmed.

But during his re-election bid, he faced controversy over a vote in favor of a bill that would place publicly managed forests into state control. His opponent, Denise Juneau, accused him of reneging on his commitments to protect public lands.

Juneau and many conservation groups, including the National Wildlife Federation and Fosburgh’s Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, argued the bill could be a first step toward transfer of federal lands to the states or to private interests.

On another front, Ankney said Zinke was instrumental in passing the Blackfeet Water Compact, a water resources management bill. Native American issues are key to the state, as it is home to eight reservations. Zinke also won praise from the Crow Nation for his support in protecting Native American tax credits for coal production, Ankney said.

“The Bureau of Indian Affairs has been a mess for years and Congressman Zinke will get that straightened out,” he added.

"[Zinke] will be reporting to someone who appears to believe he is the sole and final authority on everything but has no experience with handling public lands."

Cliff Larsen

Democratic state Senator from Montana

Senator Larsen does not doubt Zinke’s commitment to preserving federal ownership and management of public lands. But “he will be reporting to someone who appears to believe he is the sole and final authority on everything but has no experience with handling public lands,” Larsen said. “It would probably be pretty hard to say 'no' to Donald Trump when the chips were down.”

While Trump has flip-flopped on several issues, the President-elect has made it clear that he does not support transferring public lands into state control in an interview with Field & Stream magazine last year. 

Montana Republican Senator Taylor Brown, who campaigned with Zinke in 2008 and served alongside him for four years, disagrees with Larson’s concerns, stressing Zinke’s leadership skills as a Commander of Joint Operations in the Middle East. "He led a 3,500 person special forces unit,” Brown said. “That shows he is prepared to lead a complex department with a lot of moving parts like Interior.”

Zinke also demonstrated his ability to learn on the job when he chaired the Montana Senate Education Committee, Brown added. “He had no first-hand knowledge of education but made himself knowledgeable by asking the right questions of the right people.”

The job and climate change

The Secretary of the Interior heads more than 70,000 employees in managing 20%  of U.S. lands, including wildlife refuges, park lands and recreational areas under the BLM. And part of that job description also includes oversight over oil and gas development on federal lands as well as renewable energy.

As part of her DOI duties, outgoing Secretary Sally Jewell wanted to reform how the agency manages lands to address climate change. But Zinke, who has expressed skepticism over climate science and backed fossil fuel development, will likely take a different path.  

The New York Times quoted him as saying in a 2014 debate that climate change is "not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either… You don’t dismantle America’s power and energy on a maybe. We need to be energy independent first. We need to do it better, which we can, but it is not a settled science.”

For groups like Fosburgh’s, Zinke's commitment to public lands assuages their fears for the most part.

“We have concerns that he could undo some of the good done under President Obama but he gets the importance of conserving public lands,” Fosburgh said. “I never had a discussion with him about climate change but I am confident that, as DOI Secretary, he will understand it is one thing to be a bomb-thrower in Congress and another to have the responsibility for these lands for future generations.”

The problem is, as both those who both support and oppose Zinke’s nomination pointed out, he will be working for a President notoriously fickle in his policies.

The Department of Interior manages 20% of U.S. lands.
Interior Department

The environmentalist critique

As a Montana senator, Zinke joined 1,210 lawmakers from 49 states in signing a letter warning of “steep costs due to the risks associated with climate change.” It declared that “the clean energy and climate challenge is America’s new space race.”

But by 2015, he switched stances and said climate change is not a national security threat nor is it caused by human factors, PBS reported. Later that year, Zinke acknowledged the climate is changing but said the human contribution is “unknown” and not a reason to “be destructive on fossil fuels,” according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

"[Zinke] used to be open minded. Now it’s just, 'drill, baby drill.'"

Anne Hedges

Deputy Director, Montana Environmental Information Center

Those statements are cause for concern among Montana’s environmental groups.

“Zinke is wrong on each and every energy issue,” MIEC’s Hedges wrote in an email to Utility Dive. “He used to be open minded. Now it’s just, 'drill, baby drill.' He exaggerates the benefits and ignores the costs of unlimited resource extraction.”

His strong support for coal is well-documented. He opposed the Obama administration’s coal leasing moratorium, supports coal export terminals, and has received coal industry campaign contributions.

He once told Montana newspaper, the Great Falls Tribune, that Obama's administration “is fighting a more aggressive war against American coal than they are against ISIS.” Both parties “want clean air and water and affordable power” and “advances in clean-coal technology have made it possible to have both,” he added, despite the fact that "clean" coal remains largely in the pilot project stage.

Rep. Zinke also objected when the Obama administration did not support the Keystone XL pipeline and advocated for oil drilling in the environmentally sensitive terrain on the North Fork of Montana’s Flathead River.

He sponsored House Bill 702 which, had it won Senate approval, would have repealed the ban on U.S. crude oil exports put in place during the 1970s energy crises. Opponents of the bill intent on protecting the nation’s oil supplies were “radical environmentalists that just do everything against fossil fuels,” Zinke told a Montana newspaper.

He also was quoted as saying the Obama administration’s limits on the controversial fracking method of drilling for oil and natural gas are “another example of government bureaucracy stifling Montana.”

In line with these stances, Rep. Zinke took an early position against the Obama Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. It is a “federal assault” on Montana’s economy, a Zinke press release asserted. His votes in Congress on efforts to rein in climate change emissions and pollution were consistent with this position.

While Montana’s Democratic Senator Jon Tester earned an 84% ranking from the League of Conservation Voters for 2015, Rep. Zinke earned a 3% score. His 2009 and 2011 rankings from MIEC, Montana Conservation Voters, and other conservation groups ranged between 40% and 60%, according to the non-partisan Vote Smart website.

Despite this record, one conservationist could still make a case for Zinke.

'An honest dialogue'

“He is an all-of-the-above kind of guy,” Fosburgh said. “He has been good on protection of public lands because he gets it. He represents the mainstream or moderate view that you can have development and conservation if you site and time development wisely.”

Montana Public Utilities Commissioner Travis Kavulla, the outgoing National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners President, underscored that point.

“Ryan Zinke understands the federal estate is meant to be productive and useful for the benefit of the public at large.”

Zinke’s position mirrors that of many American residents. A November poll from Yale University and George Madison University showed that the public approves using publicly-owned land to develop energy resources.

“Registered voters support diverse energy policies, including many designed to reduce carbon pollution and dependence on fossil fuels, and to promote clean energy,” the pollsters reported.

According to the poll, 83% of the registered voters surveyed supported developing renewable energy on public lands, while only 47% supported fossil fuel development. Fosburgh pointed to an appearance by Donald Trump’s son, Donald Jr., in a bid to put to rest further concerns about Zinke’s  and the president-elect’s  stances on conservation and developing public lands for energy development.

“The president-elect has talked about development of energy resources but his son made it clear in his appearance here that conservation has to go with that,” Fosburgh said.

Trump, Jr., promised those at the TRCP event that his father will entrust him with these issues, and he will make sure there is a respectable balance between development and conservation

Trump’s son told Fosburgh he recommended Zinke for the DOI job. 

“Like Don Trump, Jr., Rep. Zinke is for public access and for conserving the special places. But he is also for responsibly developing energy resources and infrastructure on public land.”

Whit Fosburg

President and CEO, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

Zinke has taken at least two principled stands to protect federal lands and access to them from being transferred to the states, Fosburgh said. One was Zinke’s stance on a bill that would have allowed states to purchase up to 2 million acres of national forest land for timber production.

“We were adamantly opposed to that bill because it was a first step toward transferring public lands to the states. Rep. Zinke listened to us and understood,” Fosburgh said. “The bill passed 23-15 on a straight party line vote. Except for him. He was the one Republican on that committee to buck Chair Rob Bishop (R-UT) and vote the right way.”

In another event, Zinke opposed a plank proposed for the GOP party platform that called on Congress to legislate the transfer of public lands, and even resigned as a convention delegate when he couldn’t get the platform committee to drop the issue. However, Zinke came out in favor of a bill that would ease the transfer of federal lands to state hands earlier this month, stoking fears among environmentalists and other stakeholders that he is in favor of selling off public lands.

But a Zinke Interior Department will thoroughly enforce regulations protecting the environment on any transmission, pipeline, or generation infrastructure it approves, Fosburgh said. “He won’t rubber stamp those things for two reasons.”

First, he saw what the Exxon pipeline rupture into Montana’s Yellowstone River did and that will make him “doubly cautious,” Fosburgh said. Second, he is an outdoorsman and “appreciates the importance of protecting public land.

TRCP is not concerned with any lawmaker’s political party. “Any person in favor of conservation is a friend,” Fosburgh said. Though there are concerns about the new administration, “we will be here, working to protect the good things done during the Obama administration. And Ryan Zinke is somebody we can have an honest dialogue with.”

What that dialogue — and Zinke's stances  will ultimately look like as head of the Interior Department should become more clear when he attends his confirmation hearing next week in Washington, D.C. 

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