Access Groups Say Zinke Waffled on Land Transfer Votes

Whitefish Congressman defends position against outright transfer of federal parcels to state

By Tristan Scott
Ryan Zinke. Beacon File Photo

U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, came under fire this week when a host of public land access groups accused him of flip-flopping on a bill to transfer millions of federal acres to the oversight of state advisory committees.

The groups say Zinke’s vote to transfer parcels of national forest land to the advisory committees amounted to an about-face when, hours earlier, Montana’s lone Congressman from Whitefish touted his firm stance against an outright transfer of federal lands to state ownership.

While the groups say the bills share the same tenor of promoting land transfers and circumventing environmental protections, Zinke countered that they are distinctly different, and defended his votes as consistent with his view that states deserve more stake in federal land management, while drawing a hard line against full transfer of ownership.

“The first piece was an outright transfer of federal lands. The second piece dealt with establishing a land management pilot program,” Zinke wrote in an op-ed piece. “I have said this before, and will say this again: I do not support selling and transferring ownership of Montana’s public lands.”

The votes occurred June 15 during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing to consider 19 bills, and immediately prompted a flurry of responses from sportsmen groups, as well as from Zinke’s opponent in the race for Montana’s lone House seat, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau.

At the hearing, Zinke crossed party lines and voted alongside Democrats as the only Republican to oppose an Alaska representative’s outright land transfer bill. That bill, the State National Forest Management Act, or H.R. 3650, sponsored by Republican Rep. Don Young, would have authorized states to take ownership of up to 2 million acres of federal land.

“I’m starting to wonder how many times I have to tell these guys in party leadership I’m not going to allow Montana’s public lands to be sold or given away,” Zinke said in a news release following the vote.

The bill passed 23-15, despite Zinke’s vote against it.

At the same hearing, Zinke voted in favor of the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act, a bill that establishes a pilot program allowing for “demonstration areas” made up of up to 200,000 acres per national forest per state, with governor-appointed advisory committees steering management under state and private forestry regulations rather than the National Environmental Protection Act.

Montana has 10 National Forest System units, amounting to up to 2 million acres of land that the advisory committee could oversee.

The governor-appointed advisory committees would each be made up of four members representing the commercial timber industry, federal grazing program, local county government, and recreational users.

The groups crying foul included The Wilderness Society, the Montana Wilderness Association, Montana Conservation Voters, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, who say both measures constitute overt attempts to undermine public land ownership and strip away environmental protections.

“This would undermine bedrock environmental laws, including the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, and give extractive industry exclusive control of our national forests,” wrote John Todd, conservation director for the Montana Wilderness Association. “This unprecedented approach to transferring and industrializing public lands would lead to the loss of clean water, wildlife habitat, and recreational use of public lands that are owned by all Americans.”

Zinke’s spokesperson, Heather Swift, called the charges trumped up, and defended the congressman’s vote for the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act, or H.R. 2316, which she said falls in line with his position that states should have more say in federal land management.

“Ryan Zinke has long maintained that states and local stakeholders should have a greater say in how their lands are managed and H.R. 2316 does exactly that through a pilot program,” Swift wrote in an email. “Zinke voted against selling and transferring ownership of land, and he was the only Republican to vote against H.R. 3650, which would have transferred ownership of 200,000 acres.”

Neal Ullman, program director for Montana Conservation Voters, said Zinke’s support for H.R. 2316, sponsored by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, tears a hole in the argument that he’s a champion of public land access and presents a costly gamble.

“In my view, these bills basically do the same thing,” Ullman said. “The bill that Zinke supported doesn’t outright transfer or sell the land to state or local governments, but it would allow the state to manage X-number of acres for however long they deem fit, which could prove very costly if the pilot programs don’t pan out.”

Scott Brennan, state director of The Wilderness Society, said handing complete control of management to untested advisory councils is anathema to Zinke’s proclamations against land transfers.

“As Montanans we’ve been encouraged by Rep. Zinke’s recent words to put our public lands as one of his highest priorities,” Brennan said. “But actions speak louder than words and his recent vote for the Self-Sufficient Community Lands Act is disappointing and doesn’t jive” with other recent statements.