Trump’s Interior pick confounds conservationists

Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke evokes Roosevelt, but his record has veered away from environmental protection.


The Montana congressman whom President-elect Donald Trump named to head the Interior Department wants people to think of him as a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist. His Twitter bio describes him as a “Teddy Roosevelt fan.” “Like Teddy, I believe our lands are worth cherishing,” Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Republican, wrote in an opinion piece in the Billings Gazette in April.

But Zinke’s efforts to associate himself with Roosevelt ring hollow for some environmental activists in Montana who have for years fought his efforts to extract more coal, oil, gas and timber from public lands, and an examination of his record shows that in recent years, his positions, particularly on public lands and climate change, have veered away from environmental protection.

Ryan Zinke spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference 2016.
Gage Skidmore/Flickr user

John Todd, conservation director of the Montana Wilderness Association, ticks off one anti-environmental effort after another from Zinke. For instance, Zinke voted for the Sportsmen’s Heritage bill, which could allow dam building, logging and temporary roads in wilderness areas. Zinke recently held listening sessions on a draft bill that would undermine a president’s authority to designate national monuments under the 1906 Antiquities Act by requiring approval from state governors, counties and property owners. Roosevelt, the first president who had that authority, used it widely to preserve treasured places such as California’s Muir Woods, Utah’s Natural Bridges and Wyoming’s Devils Tower. “All of those (Zinke’s actions) run counter to the things that Theodore Roosevelt stood for,” Todd says.

But as a politician from a state where enthusiasm for the outdoors is nearly ubiquitous, Zinke tries to project an image as a rare breed: a pro-conservation Republican. He pushes for access to public lands and supports the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses oil royalties to acquire public lands. He also distances himself from the Sagebrush Rebellion call for public lands to be transferred to state control. “Selling off our public lands is a non-starter. I’ve voted against budget resolutions and bucked party leadership on more than a couple occasions to defend our lands,” Zinke wrote in the Billings Gazette.

Zinke quoted Roosevelt after Trump named him the head Interior, where he will oversee 500 million acres of land, about one-fifth of the nation and 70,000 employees, including many scientists. Some 40 percent of the nation’s coal comes from lands managed by the department, which also oversees oil and gas development on and offshore. The agency also is entrusted with protecting endangered animals and plants, wilderness areas and national parks. “I shall faithfully uphold Teddy Roosevelt’s belief that our treasured public lands are ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.’ I will work tirelessly to ensure our public lands are managed and preserved in a way that benefits everyone for generations to come. Most important, our sovereign Indian Nations and territories must have the respect and freedom they deserve,” he said in a statement.

Trump reportedly was urged to pick Zinke by his son Donald, Jr., an avid trophy hunter. “My administration’s goal is to repeal bad regulations and use our natural resources to create jobs and wealth for the American people, and Ryan will explore every possibility for how we can safely and responsibly do that,” Trump said in the same statement.

Like the president-elect, Zinke has drawn a line when it comes to permanently giving away federal lands. This summer, he was among the GOP faithful selected to draft the party’s platform. But he resigned his position in opposition to a provision that calls for handing over federal lands to states. “What I saw was a platform that was more divisive than uniting,” Zinke said at the time, according to the Billings Gazette. He addressed the GOP Convention in July, but spoke only about military issues and international affairs.

A fifth generation Montanan who grew up right outside of Glacier National Park, Zinke is best known on the national stage as a former Navy Seal with strong opinions about foreign policy. Anne Hedges, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, recalls that her first impression of Zinke in 2009, when he was a state senator, was that he was also a “conservative conservationist,” which reflected the politics of his district. “Initially, I really liked him. His can-do spirit and willingness to buck the establishment was refreshing. I remember lobbying him in his first session; he was quite moderate. He was very receptive to environmental concerns and his votes reflected that,” she says.

For instance, he opposed efforts to weaken the state’s Environmental Policy Act and supported renewable energy. In 2010, Zinke signed a letter from state legislators calling on Congress and President Obama to embrace comprehensive clean energy and climate change legislation. “The climate change threat presents significant national security challenges for the United States – challenges that should be addressed today, because they will almost certainly get worse if we delay,” the state legislators, including Zinke, wrote.

But after an unsuccessful bid in 2012 to be Montana’s lieutenant general, he no longer seemed open to environmental causes, Hedges recalls: “The shift was like someone turning off a light switch. There was not much more room to work with him.”

In Washington, he has focused more on extraction than conservation. When he first ran for Congress in 2014, he named as his biggest issue, getting approval for a silver and copper mine beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness south of Libby. Conservationists were concerned that the Montanore mine would dewater the wilderness area. (The mine recently won federal approval but the state has only permitted a first stage.) Fossil fuel extraction companies and their electric utilities figure prominently in the list of Zinke’s major donors. Oasis Petroleum was his top donor, according to an analysis by campaign finance watchdog group, Center for Responsive Politics. And Cloud Peak Energy, which mines coal in Montana and Wyoming, kicked in $10,000. All together oil and gas companies, their owners and their employees contributed about $160,000 to his reelection bid, according to the analysis.

The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness is a relatively small wilderness area in Northwest Montana that contains habitat for grizzly bears, wolves and other top-end predators.
Scott Butner/Flickr user

In Congress, Zinke championed a bill to overturn Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s moratorium on new coal leases on federal land. He also opposed the Obama administration’s rules to improve environmental protections during hydraulic fracturing on public lands, and to protect waterways from coal mining and other development.

Although he frequently declares his opposition to public land transfers, he couches his position by stressing that local folks are better than Washington bureaucrats at determining the appropriate balance between the multiple uses of public lands. For instance, he sponsored a bill to allow management of federal lands by panels appointed by state governors. “Montana can manage our lands better than Washington,” Zinke said in a 2014 debate.

“That’s a distinction without much difference,” says Hedges. Hedges believes that Zinke’s ambition for higher office motivated him to change his views to align with GOP leaders and their big donors. For instance, after supporting national climate legislation a few years earlier, in a 2014 debate for his House seat, Zinke rejected the clear message from scientists that humans are causing climate change. “It’s not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either,” Zinke. “But you don’t dismantle America’s power and energy on a maybe. We need to be energy independent first.”

Still by opposing the land transfer movement and supporting access to public lands and the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Zinke has won friends in the sportsmen’s crowd. Dave Chadwick, director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, says he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Zinke on coal and other fossil fuels, but believes Zinke is earnest in trying to emulate Roosevelt.

“We might disagree with him about how completely his actions are in line with what Teddy Roosevelt might want,” Chadwick says. “But I think he’s sincere when he calls himself a Teddy Roosevelt Republican.”

So far, it’s unclear how Zinke will mesh with the rest of the incoming administration. Trump’s picks to head the Energy Department and Environmental Protection Agency have long histories in promoting fossil fuels and fighting environmental regulations. Trump’s pick for Energy, Rick Perry as Texas governor, sued the EPA for its finding that carbon dioxide is a pollutant –the Supreme Court sided with EPA. And to top the EPA, Trump selected Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who in recent years has sued to overturn one environmental rule after another, including cleaning mercury from power plant exhausts to reduce haze over national parks. Chadwick hopes that if Zinke is confirmed by the Senate and becomes Interior secretary, he will lead other Republicans to embrace conservation as the bipartisan value it once was.

This article has been updated to correct the title of John Todd, of the Montana Wilderness Association, of which he is the conservation director, not director of the Wyoming Wilderness Association. It has also been updated to accurately reflect Zinke's 2012 bid: it was for lieutenant general, not attorney general.

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington.  

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