By picking Representative Ryan Zinke (R–MT) to be secretary of the Department of the Interior, as the media have widely reported, President-elect Donald Trump is tapping into two common, and sometimes conflicting, attitudes toward federal lands in the rural West.
A hunter raised in northwestern Montana, not far from the peaks of Glacier National Park, Zinke (pronounced “zeenkee”) has won plaudits from some conservation groups for pushing to keep federal lands in federal control and protect access for hunting and recreation. At the same time, he’s an ally of the fossil fuel industry who has railed against limits set by the Obama administration on coal mining and oil and gas drilling on those same federal holdings. Zinke has also questioned the science behind climate change.
Zinke’s mix of positions makes him a less ideologically rigid Cabinet pick than several others expected to play a significant role in environmental issues, says Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Washington, D.C.–based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. He contrasts Zinke with the choice of former Texas Governor Rick Perry as energy secretary and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. “This guy is not doctrinaire or antithetical to the continued existence of his agency,” Ruch says. “So this is significant.”
The Trump transition team hasn’t formally announced the job offer, and Zinke has yet to make any official statement.
As interior secretary, the 55-year-old Zinke would be in a key position to shape policy on hotly contested environmental issues. The post oversees more than 200 million hectares of federal land, including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which controls the bulk of the public leases for coal, oil, and natural gas extraction. Much of the nation’s protected wilderness, from national parks to national monuments, would be under his purview. So would the government’s handling of many endangered species through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A former Navy Seal commander with an undergraduate degree in geology from the University of Oregon in Eugene, Zinke was a senator in the Montana state legislature from 2009 to 2011. He won the state’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014 and was reelected by a 15-point margin last month.
In Congress, Zinke has allied himself with conservation groups on some issues related to protecting federal lands. He supported permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses royalties from offshore oil drilling to fund conservation programs. And he has split with some of his fellow Western state conservatives by resisting calls to turn federal lands over to state and local control. In July, he resigned from the Republican platform committee because the platform called for turning over some federal lands to the states.
“Quite frankly, most Republicans don't agree with it and most Montanans don't agree with it,” Zinke told the Billings Gazette at the time. “What we do agree on is better management.”
That stance has won praise from conservation groups ranging from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and other hunting advocates to the Montana Wildlife Federation (MWF). “He’s certainly broken with some of the ideological doctrine on those issue, and I think he’s done a better job reflecting the interests of people in Montana to keep these lands managed by the federal government,” says Dave Chadwick, MWF’s executive director in Helena.
But Zinke has clashed with the Obama administration on policies related to the energy industry. He has criticized BLM regulations to revive sage grouse populations in the West, arguing the states should have control instead. Sage grouse habitat overlaps with oil and gas fields, raising concerns that protections will restrict drilling. He has opposed Interior Department rules finalized in mid-November that clamp down on methane releases from oil and gas operations, and pushed legislation easing a moratorium on federal coal mining leases. He has also spoken in favor of the recently rejected Keystone XL pipeline.
Alan Olson, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association in Helena, thinks Zinke’s appointment signals potential relief from recent restrictions on his industry. He hopes the department will be more open to accepting state standards regulating oil and gas extraction with Zinke at the helm. “He’ll sit back for a minute and he’ll look at what’s already being done now [and ask], ‘Why do we need additional federal rules?’” says Olson, who served with Zinke in the Montana Senate.
For some environmentalists, Zinke’s alliance with the oil and gas industry tarnishes his conservation credentials. “Zinke loves oil and gas and coal. And he has completely changed his tune on climate change as his ambition has risen,” says Anne Hedges, deputy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center in Helena.
In 2010, he signed a letter to President Obama urging him to pursue comprehensive clean energy and climate change legislation, and warning that states faced “steep costs due to the risks associated with climate change.” But once he decided to seek statewide office, Hedges says, Zinke’s “moderate” views hardened. In a 2014 debate, for example, The Montana Standard newspaper quoted him saying that climate change is “not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either. … You don’t dismantle America’s power and energy on a maybe. We need to be energy independent first. We need to do it better, which we can, but it is not a settled science.”