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Washington • President-elect Donald Trump's choice to head the Interior Department, Montana GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke, stood up against his party's efforts to sell off public lands earlier this year, though environmental groups remain concerned about his support of energy development and logging on federal acreage.
Zinke has agreed to accept the post overseeing 500 million acres of public lands in the United States and nearly 2 billion acres of the outer continental shelf. In June, he voted against a bill that would have sold off 2 million federal acres to state ownership, cutting against the grain of many Republicans in the West, including Utah, who have pushed to take control of federal lands, arguing states are better suited to manage their own backyards.
"I'm starting to wonder how many times I have to tell these guys in leadership I'm not going to allow Montana's public lands to be sold or given away," Zinke said at the time of the land-transfer vote. "Two million acres is a lot, even in Montana. That's the Flathead National Forest, poof, gone. Lolo National Forest, gone. We use our land for hunting, fishing, hiking and to create jobs. Our outdoor economy is a billion-dollar economic engine for the state that creates jobs. The federal government needs to do a much better job of managing our resources, but the sale or transfer of our land is an extreme proposal, and I won't tolerate it."
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, would have given states the option of buying federal forest land for logging.
Zinke, a freshman Republican, resigned his place as a delegate to the Republican National Convention last summer over the party platform's support for selling off public lands. He told the Billings Gazette the platform plank – calling for "conveying" federal lands to the states is "more divisive than uniting." The sale of public lands was a major issue in Zinke's race against Democrat Denise Juneau this year.
Zinke also supported funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which allows the government to buy up parcels in critical areas. The fund was reauthorized despite the best efforts of Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, to block it.
Most elected Utah officials, including Gov. Gary Herbert, clamor for the transfer of some 30 million acres of federal lands in Utah to state ownership. In fact, the governor and Legislature have set aside millions of dollars and expressed support for a lawsuit to try to force that issue, although litigation has yet to be filed.
Utahn Don Peay, founder of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife who headed Trump's campaign in the Beehive State, notes that the president-elect has made clear from the start that he was not backing efforts to sell off public lands but would push for more input from local residents about federal land decisions.
"I know the administration and [Trump's] position, [and] local people are going to have a tremendous amount of say in how our lands are managed," said Peay, who was in Washington on Wednesday to meet with the transition team. "But The Trump administration has made it known from the get-go that they are not going to sell off or transfer the federal lands to the states."
A big reason for that, Peay says, is that Trump made promises to folks in the Rust Belt states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania that he would preserve the lands on which they like to hunt or fish.
A major position of the Trump administration will be to ensure that local input is taken "in how these lands are managed and cared for," Peay said.
He added that Zinke, a former commander in the Navy SEALs with several combat tours under his belt, is a great choice to serve the new administration.
"If anyone is deserving to represent us at the top of the country," Peay said, "he would be one at the very top of the list, I would hope."
Environmental groups cheered Zinke on his stance regarding federal ownership of public lands, but are hesitant to say that the Montanan would be a good steward for the vast land, water and natural-resource holdings overseen by the Interior Department and its agencies.
"Representative 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," said Brian Sybert, executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association. "Representative Zinke has called himself a Roosevelt conservationist, and we will hold him to everything that definition entails."
Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams said that Zinke's tenure has shown some positive signs but there are "serious concerns" about his backing of logging, drilling and mining on federal lands.
"While he has steered clear of efforts to sell off public lands and supported the Land and Water Conservation Fund, far more often Representative Zinke has advanced policies that favor special interests," Williams said. "His overall record and the backdrop of Cabinet nominations with close ties to the fossil-fuel industry cause us grave concern. Representative Zinke has refused to acknowledge that climate change is caused by fossil-fuel emissions, while vocally opposing the Obama administration's efforts to reduce harmful methane emissions."
Other groups offered their support for Zinke should he accept the position in the Trump administration.
"It is good news that Westerners are surfacing to top positions in the incoming administration," said Jeff Laszlo, chairman of the Western Landowners Alliance, a group of ranchers, landowners and businesses. "As a Montanan and outdoorsman, Congressman Zinke has boots-on-the-ground, real-life experience to understand what needs to be done to achieve the difficult balance our landscape requires. He has experienced and witnessed firsthand the need to improve land-management policies in Western states like Montana which are comprised of an interconnected patchwork of private and public lands. These lands serve multiple uses and are cherished by a diverse array of interests."