Updated: Dec. 13, 6:25 p.m.
Ryan Zinke, a Whitefish native who served as a Navy SEAL commander before becoming Montana’s Congressman, has been selected to oversee the nation’s federal lands and natural resources.
National media outlets, including the Washington Post, have reported President-elect Donald Trump offered Zinke, 55, the position of Secretary of the Interior after meeting with the Republican congressman on Dec. 12. Zinke was an early supporter of Trump, and Zinke’s wife, Lola, was recently appointed to Trump’s Veterans Administration Landing Team, which will review the agency and suggest changes.
Zinke has yet to accept. Spokesperson Heather Swift said Zinke was flying back to Whitefish on Tuesday and was unavailable for comment. She said his office would not provide a statement on the reported appointment Tuesday night.
Zinke was recently reelected for a second term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He had been eyeing a possible 2018 run for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Jon Tester.
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.
In recent weeks, several other names emerged as possibilities for Interior Secretary in Trump’s cabinet that would have been far less palatable for conservation groups, according to University of Montana political science professor Rob Saldin.
Saldin said Zinke’s selection should provide some relief to environmental advocates who have been wringing their hands with uncertainty while faced with the prospect of a conservative appointee to lead the country’s natural resources policy, especially someone whose track record on public land and energy development marks a philosophical departure from that of outgoing Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Among the names that surfaced were Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Lucas Oil co-founder Forrest Lucas, former Colorado Rep. Bob Beauprez, and Eastern Washington lawmaker Cathy McMorris Rodgers — all of whose environmental records raised the hackles of conservation advocates.
“I think this is kind of champagne-cork times for some of the conservation groups worried that it was going to be Sarah Palin or someone supportive of transferring public lands or an oil executive,” Saldin told the Beacon on Tuesday. “Zinke has been a vocal advocate for protecting public land and he has put forward some aggressive policies on energy development, and I would expect him to pursue both of those channels. But when it comes to public land he has carved out some unique territory. He has gone out on a limb by the standards of the Republican Party as a defender of public lands, and some of the other names floated out there were scary. Conservation groups should be thrilled. It could have been way worse.”
Still, Zinke has also been a staunch advocate of mining and logging on federal lands, prompting some to voice concern that he would align with Trump’s agenda to prioritize the development of oil, gas and other resources over the protection of clean water, air and wildlife.
During his Congressional tenure, Zinke served on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on Natural Resources. He has been an outspoken advocate of energy development and American energy independence. He has opposed federal intervention in certain cases familiar to residents in Northwest Montana, including the Superfund designation for the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company site and protections for the North Fork Flathead River.
In 2015, Zinke broke from the pack as the only Republican to vote in favor of extending funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
“I’m a Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” Zinke told the Beacon in January 2015 after starting his Congressional tenure. “We live in Montana for a reason, because we enjoy clean water, clean air and the outdoors. But it has to be about multiple use and not single use. I think we have lost our way in a lot of ways. We can mine and drill and still be responsible stewards of the land we cherish. Coal, oil and natural gas are going to be part of our energy picture for a long time and there is no doubt when it comes to energy that Montana has an important role to play.”
Saldin told the Beacon during this year’s campaign that Zinke has bucked the party line on a few occasions in terms of public lands decisions.
“He has stuck his neck out there a little bit, so it is hard to tar Zinke as being some zealot on public lands,” Saldin said as Democrats were claiming Zinke supported the transfer of public lands, which the Congressman denied. “His record in Congress just doesn’t support that very well.”
Agencies in the Department of the Interior:
— National Park Service
— Fish and Wildlife Service
— Bureau of Indian Affairs
— Bureau of Land Management
— Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement
— Bureau of Reclamation
— Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation, and Enforcement
— Geological Survey
Zinke was the co-sponsor of the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015, which a coalition of Montana sportsmen, timber leaders, outfitters, business owners, and conservationists said was out of sync with the brand of collaboration-driven forest management solution that best suits Montana’s interests.
The bill, which U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, also supported, put timber harvests above all else, critics said, and opened the door for unsuitable forest management while limiting public involvement. It also would have required those litigating forest projects or policy to post a bond and categorically exclude projects that have collaborative support with the goal of increasing the size of projects.
Daines issued a statement Tuesday in support of Trump’s selection of Zinke.
“Ryan Zinke protected us abroad and in combat and I know he will do the same for our treasured public lands as Secretary of the Interior,” Daines stated. “In Congress, I’ve seen Ryan stand up and fight to protect our way of life. As a westerner, Ryan understands the challenges of having the federal government as your largest neighbor and I couldn’t think of a better fit for Secretary of the Interior.”
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.
“Just based on what we’ve seen in terms of his statements and proposals for legislation on forestry issues, we don’t think it bodes well for national forest management,” Keith Hammer, executive director of the Swan View Coalition, a local environmental group, said Tuesday in response to Zinke’s selection as Interior Secretary.
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, he has promoted an energy strategy that includes renewable sources such as wind and solar.
“(Zinke) is a dirty energy advocate through and through, but his record suggests he opposes a sell-off of public lands, in contrast to Rep. McMorris Rodgers,” said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center, referring to the other early frontrunner for the position of Interior Secretary. “I hope Zinke really does value public lands as highly as do the American people. If he does, he should realize climate change presents a grave risk to our public lands, our rivers and streams, and the West’s iconic wildlife – and we can’t mine and drill our way out of the climate crisis.”
The League of Conservation Voters gave Zinke a 3 percent voting score for his time in Congress.
Others consider Zinke a positive selection for outdoors management.
“Congressman Zinke understands the importance of public lands and balancing management of these important resources with energy development and other uses,” Backcountry Hunters & Anglers President and CEO Land Tawney said in a statement. “As Montana’s lone representative in the House of Representatives, Mr. Zinke has showed himself to be receptive to the interests of a wide range of constituents and a potential ally of sportsmen and other outdoor recreationists.”
Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck applauded the choice of Zinke as Interior Secretary.
“Ryan Zinke would be a fantastic selection,” Peck told the Beacon. “He’s a decisive decision maker and he’s a Montana guy who understands natural resource issues.”
Leading the Interior, Zinke will also oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman Harry Barnes said he thought Zinke was a strong pick.
“I think it’s a great day for Montana because anytime a Montanan is picked for a position with this much responsibility, it’s a good thing,” Barnes told the Beacon.
Barnes said Zinke has been a strong advocate for issues that concern the Blackfeet Tribe, specifically the recently passed Blackfeet Water Compact.
“We have a lot of respect for Ryan. He’s an ally of the Blackfeet and he’s a good voice for Montana,” Barnes said. “I hope this means that we’ll have an ear in Washington D.C. to talk about the issues and concerns of Indian Country.”
Leaders of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes likewise congratulated Zinke and placed faith in his ability to advocate on their behalf.
“Congressman Zinke’s efforts over the last two years to secure the ratification of the Blackfeet Water Rights Settlement demonstrates his understanding of issues important to Montana,” according to a statement from tribal headquarters. “His personal focus on local control and less Washington bureaucracy is consistent with tribal self-governance and we look forward to working with him on common goals.”
Brian Sybert, executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association, said Zinke would “carry Montana’s values” into his new role.
“That means protecting access to public lands, ensuring our forests and prairies are indeed managed for multiple use and not just resource extraction, and respecting that wild places and public lands are core American values that he’ll need to protect for all citizens,” Sybert said. “Rep. Zinke has a checkered record when it comes to public lands, including a vote for developing wilderness areas, but has taken a few good votes against lands transfer and for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Rep. Zinke has called himself a Roosevelt conservationist, and we will hold him to everything that definition entails.”
The Secretary of the Interior is responsible for the management and conservation of federal land and natural resources.
If Zinke were to vacate his Congressional seat, the U.S. Constitution calls for a special election to fill the vacancy. Republicans and Democrats would present candidates, and the election would take place 85 to 105 days after the vacancy.
The Montana Secretary of State’s Office is looking into the procedural steps that would be required.
“Our office is currently researching the procedures required in the event of a vacancy of a United State House of Representatives seat,” Emily Dean, communications director of the Secretary of State’s Office, told the Beacon.
Montana Republican Party Chairman Jeff Essmann said in a statement that while Zinke’s departure from Congress would be a loss for Montana, his selection as Interior Secretary is “our nation’s gain.”
“Ryan Zinke has always answered the call of duty. His courage, leadership, and selfless sacrifice are needed now more than ever by our country,” Essmann stated. “President-elect Donald J. Trump ran his campaign on the promise to bring better paying jobs back to this country. Our natural resources – our coal, oil and natural gas, and minerals – can play a role in restoring the economic health of our nation and provide good-paying jobs to Montanans and Americans.”
Zinke graduated from Whitefish High School in 1980 and attended the University of Oregon on a football scholarship. He graduated from Oregon in 1984 with a bachelor of science degree in geology. In June 1990, he received an master’s in business administration in finance from National University in San Diego. He spent 23 years in the U.S. Navy and served as a Navy SEAL commander, including time on SEAL Team 6. In February 2008, Zinke retired as a commander from active duty with an Honorable Discharge, having received two Bronze Stars for combat missions in Iraq, among other medals.
Upon returning home to Whitefish, he became CEO of Continental Divide Consulting firm, which specialized in advanced technology in aerospace, oil and gas, and national security. He served in the Montana Senate from 2008 to 2012. He ran unsuccessfully as a lieutenant governor candidate with gubernatorial contender Neil Livingstone in 2012.
Correction (Dec. 14): The article previously incorrectly stated that the Environmental Protection Agency was under the Department of the Interior.