WASHINGTON — Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke says he would never sell, give away or transfer public lands, a crucial stance in his home state of Montana and the West where access to hunting and fishing is considered sacrosanct.
Zinke feels so strongly that he resigned as a delegate to the Republican National Convention last summer because of the GOP’s position in favor of land transfers to state or private groups. But Zinke’s commitment to public lands has come into question in recent weeks and is likely to be a point of contention Tuesday as the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee considers his nomination to be interior secretary under President-elect Donald Trump.
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Zinke, 55, a former Navy SEAL who just won his second term in Congress, was an early Trump supporter and, like his prospective boss, has expressed skepticism about the urgency of climate change.
A self-described “Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” Zinke has supported legislation to boost land and water conservation and recreation on public lands. Zinke has also advocated for increased oil and gas drilling and coal-mining on Western lands.
The Interior Department and other U.S. agencies control almost a third of land in the West and even more of the underground “mineral estate” that holds vast amounts of coal, oil and natural gas.
Zinke’s position on public lands came under fire after he voted in favor of a measure from House Republicans that would allow federal land transfers to be considered cost-free and budget-neutral, making it easier for drilling and development.
Zinke “says he’s against transfer of federal lands, but there’s a big gap between what he says and what he does in that regard,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, the nation’s oldest and largest environmental group.
“You’d think the congressman would be on his best behavior going into a job interview, but instead he’s taking steps to once again jeopardize the future of Montana’s outdoor economy,” Nancy Keenan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, said after the Jan. 3 vote.
Zinke’s spokeswoman said the congressman maintains his position against the sale or transfer of federal lands.
Supporters calls the dispute overblown and say Zinke’s vote was on a much larger package that sets House rules in the new Congress.
Indeed, his support for public lands was a crucial reason why Zinke was chosen by Trump. The president-elect and his son, Donald Trump Jr., both oppose sale of federal lands. The younger Trump, an avid hunter, has taken a keen interest in Interior issues and played a key role in Zinke’s selection.
Coal is likely to be another focus on Tuesday. Montana boasts the largest coal reserves in the nation, and Zinke has warned environmentalists and the Obama administration that to take coal out of the energy mix would be “a disaster.”
“I don’t agree with keeping it in the ground,” he said during his re-election campaign.
Eric Washburn, a lobbyist and former aide to Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, said Zinke will likely be asked to “defend federal ownership over federal lands” and detail how he would balance energy development with the need to conserve fish and wildlife habitats.
Zinke “appears to be a straight shooter, someone that energy and conservation interests can both work with,” Washburn said.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership endorsed Zinke, calling him “a leader on many issues important to America’s hunters and anglers.”
Brune, of the Sierra Club, scoffed at the comparison to Roosevelt, saying the only way to connect the men is “to describe the ways Zinke wants to undo TR’s legacy” of conservation.
Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, the top Democrat on the energy panel, said she is eager to ask Zinke about modernizing the federal coal program “to make sure American taxpayers aren’t short-changed for the benefit of corporate interests.” Cantwell also said wants reassurances that Zinke will protect the interests of American consumers and native tribes — “not just the coal and mining companies.”
Zinke spent 23 years as a Navy SEAL, serving in Kosovo and Iraq, where he was awarded two Bronze Stars for combat missions. He currently serves on the House Natural Resources and Armed Services committees.
He made an unsuccessful 2012 run for Montana lieutenant governor before shifting his ambitions to Congress in 2014. Before his selection for Interior, Zinke had been considered a likely challenger to Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2018.