Federal lawmakers voted 68-31 to approve Ryan Zinke, a Whitefish native who served as a Navy SEAL commander before becoming Montana’s Congressman, to run the department that oversees conservation, recreation, oil-and-gas drilling and other uses on vast swaths of federal land.
The U.S. Senate convened Wednesday morning for a floor hearing to cast the final vote, with Montana Sens. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and Steve Daines, a Republican, both voting in favor of Zinke’s selection to oversee the nation’s federal lands and natural resources.
Following the vote, Zinke submitted his letter of resignation to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who set a special election to replace the congressman for May 25.
“Today it is with a heavy but optimistic heart that I resign from my position as the Congressman for Montana,” Zinke said in a statement. “I’m resigning not because I do not wish to serve Montana, but rather it is to accept the role of Secretary of the Department of the Interior and serve Montana at a higher level,” according to the statement.”
Daines, speaking on the Senate floor, congratulated Zinke on becoming the first cabinet secretary from Montana.
“It is truly an honor to be one of the first to call you Secretary Zinke,” Daines said. “Well done, sir.”
“This is a historic moment for Montana as Congressman Zinke is the first Montanan to ever serve in a President’s cabinet,” Daines added in a statemet. “Ryan is a Montanan who grew up in America’s public lands. He knows that we must strike the right balance between conservation and responsible energy development, and he understands more than most that one-size fits all policies from Washington, D.C., never work for real America.”
In a statement shortly after the final vote, Tester said he has faith that Zinke will serve as a responsible steward of the nation’s public lands.
“As a Montanan, I know how important the Department of Interior is to supporting our western way of life, protecting our public lands, and living up to our trust responsibilities in Indian Country,” Tester said. “I believe Congressman Zinke will do right by Montana and the country in this role. Montana will be watching, and I know he’ll make us proud.”
The Interior Department has responsibility for energy leases on millions of acres of federal lands and waters around the U.S., as well as for conservation of national parks and forests.
Having just entered his second term as Montana’s lone congressman, Zinke’s appointment sets the stage for a rare special election. The state Republican, Democratic and Libertarian parties each will nominate candidates to run in the special election.
During his Congressional tenure, Zinke served on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Jeff Essmann, chair of the Montana Republican Party, said Zinke’s selection was a boon to Montana’s future in energy development.
“He knows the challenges Montana and other western states face when it comes to responsibly developing natural resources to create high-paying jobs, ensuring that our public lands can be enjoyed by all, and, where necessary, conserving our land under the big sky for this and future generations,” Essmann said in a statement.
While Zinke has been an outspoken advocate of energy development and independence, he also broke from the pack in 2015 as the only Republican to vote in favor of extending funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
Environmental groups have criticized Zinke for pushing for increased timber harvests on public lands, reduced environmental oversight and a greater use of public lands for energy production such as oil and natural gas.
Zinke has also said climate change is “not a settled science,” yet he has also said in interviews that “something’s going on” with the climate. The owner of a Toyota Prius during his tenure as a state senator, he has promoted an energy strategy that includes renewable sources such as wind and solar.
Other environmental and conservation groups consider Zinke a positive selection for outdoors management, praising his clearly stated opposition to the sale or transfer of federal lands and pledging to hold him accountable.
K.C. Walsh, chairman of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Corporate Council and president of Simms Fishing Products, urged Zinke to chart a path forward that promotes stewardship for the nation’s public lands.
“More than ever before, we need to see the Secretary of the Interior act with conviction as the nation’s top champion of public lands and foremost arbiter of balanced management for fish and wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation,” Walsh said. “The hunting and fishing community is looking forward to working with Secretary Zinke and his staff to improve collaborative conservation of natural resources that are the envy of all the world.”
Brian Sybert, executive director of Montana Wilderness Association, said Montana will be watching.
“Secretary Zinke has called himself a Roosevelt conservationist on multiple occasions. We will certainly hold him accountable if he does not live up to that definition,” Zinke said. “In Montana, living up to that definition will mean keeping public lands in public hands, protecting places as wild and culturally significant as the Badger-Two Medicine, and not attempting to gut or harm the Antiquities Act, a central pillar of Roosevelt’s legacy.”
Montana’s top business organization advocating for public lands also sounded the alarm on recent statements by President Trump suggesting major budget cuts to the Department of Interior.
“We congratulate Ryan Zinke on this new opportunity to serve all Americans and wish him well as he takes on a critical role for our nation’s economy. Because our public lands are so critical to Montana jobs and our Montana way of life, we ask that Mr. Zinke fight tooth and nail to retain crucial public lands and water funding which are likely to be threatened by the President’s budget,” said Marne Hayes, executive director of Business for Montana’s Outdoors.