Ryan Zinke is just what U.S. President Donald Trump needs as Secretary of the Interior.
He hails from Montana, a state in America’s unspoiled heartland and a fairly entrenched Republican stronghold. He owns a bold and brassy western hat (most likely several). He’s on good terms with and well respected by Native American tribes in Montana (a real plus at the moment). And he rides a horse, named Tonto, no less.
Zinke arrived to his first day of work in Washington like few previous interior secretaries: on a horse and flanked by a police escort. His flamboyant entrance captured the media and held it spellbound while a tribal member from his home state drummed in the background and Zinke, obviously pleased with his new digs, breezed in while tipping his hat.
At a time of intense political bickering and partisan accusations, Zinke’s congenial, “get’r done” attitude is just what Trump needs in Washington. He’s a secretary who can parlance both sides of a topic, is likable but diffident toward being pinned down and, when the political need strikes, he isn’t afraid to change his vote.
A former Navy Seal and member of Montana’s state legislature, he served as the state’s sole representative to the U.S. Congress before his nomination. He received one of the quickest Senate confirmations (68-31) on the list of contentious Trump candidates.
But he also arrives with a list of unknowns. Environmentalists are wary of Zinke and cognoscente of the fact that he not only overseas some 500 million surface acres of parks, wilderness areas and other protected lands, but also the future of the country’s precious underground resources.
They down-checked him because of his anti-gun stance (an oddity for Democrats to criticize these days, but not in rural Montana); because he wasn’t endorsed by the Montana Sports Alliance; and because he had an irritating habit of blocking fishing and hunting on public lands while backing commercial investment.
But what really stuck in the craw of Montana Democrats was his ambivalent and, in their opinion, often wishy-washy stance when it came to preserving public lands.
The topic of selling federal lands comes up everywhere from time to time like a bad memory, but it’s bantered about a more often now that the cost of forest fires and Mother Nature’s damaging tempests has become a burden for the cash-strapped Congress. To many who see the financial benefits that states like Montana draw from tourism in Glacier National Park and its Rocky Mountain resorts and hiking trails, selling off national parkland is a non-starter. For others, however, who recognize the potential dollar signs of private investment (or the revenue the state’s meager coffers would gain if it inherited the lands outright), it’s only a matter of time.
So Zinke’s inability to state his position when it comes to preserving federal parklands is a big concern to many Montanans.
And it should be.
What hasn’t been clear until recently is whether the new secretary would actually get behind efforts to sell the land to states or private entities. According to the Montana Democrat party, Zinke supports the sale of federal lands to states and private entities. But Zinke himself says the issue isn’t quite that simple.
In 2016, Zinke resigned as Republican Party delegate for the upcoming federal elections, because he said he didn’t agree with the party’s position on the sale of federal lands. Remaining on as a GOP delegate would have required him to support a party-wide platform to sell off federal lands. And Zinke said the GOP draft platform was “more divisive than uniting."
“At this point, I think it's better to show leadership,” he explained last year, then insisting he is against public land sales or transfers.
The proposed change was the first step for the new administration in shifting how U.S. federal parks and lands would be managed. It allowed the dollar value of park and wilderness lands to be zeroed out if they were transferred to another entity. That includes vast parcels of wilderness that actually earn money for the federal government through timber and mining contracts.
Zinke's decision unified hunters and environmentalists, who condemned his vote as “irresponsible.” Critics pulled a quote from his confirmation hearing in December: When asked his position on land transfer or sale of federal properties, he was short and to the point: “I am absolutely against transfer or sale of public land,” Zinke stated at the time.
But it would seem he is also not against loosening controls over the use and structuring of those assets.
“What [Republicans] do agree on is better management," Zinke told the Billings Gazette in an interview last July.
Instead of tighter federal controls and smaller mining quotas, he advocated for a a “watchdog panel” to offer recommendations about the fate and management of public lands. That panel would be made up key stakeholders: mining industry, state, local and tribal representatives. At the top of the list to tackle would be private uses of the land: mining contracts (which were suspended during the Barack Obama administration), hunting rights and the potential commercialization of some functions overseen by the federal government.
Zinke insists America’s public lands are overprotected. He admitted at his Senate confirmation hearing that some of the country’s land would need to be safeguarded, but a lot of it can be opened up to hiking, fishing and hunting. And yes, he said, mining and drilling have a role to play in public lands use as well.
But so do local communities. And he’s gone on record to support the Land and Conservation Fund, which facilitates the use of mining royalties for projects that support conservation and recreation projects. That’s a welcome sign for conservation groups, but not a reassurance when it comes to how he will weigh mining and ranching interests against the protection of threatened and endangered species.
“While he continues to paint himself as a modern Teddy Roosevelt, his very short voting record shows him repeatedly siding with industry,” Matthew Kirby recently told Scientific American.
Kirby serves as the senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America program, a campaign that directly intersects with many of the conservation issues Zinke will be responsible for addressing.
The League of Conservation Voters also shares that concern. Last year only five percent of his votes as Montana’s congressional representative were tallied as “pro-environment.” His lifetime score is even worse.
His opposition to the Obama administration’s effort to corral local support for protecting the threatened sage grouse has become a sticking point for some environmentalists who point out that the program succeeded in doing exactly what Zinke has said works best in small communities: Networking with locals instead of imposing burdensome federal regulations.
With less than a month under his belt, the country’s newest public lands manager is facing a daunting list of challenges and some $12 billion in upgrades for public parks, what he calls the “face of the Department of the Interior.” The country’s federal parks system has an image problem, but that is the least of his challenges.
With a new House bill that would allow for the sale of 3.4 million acres of public land now on the table, Zinke may have a hard time promoting his concept for a "21st-century reorganization." His greatest task will be convincing everyone that he has the well-being of America’s public investment at heart.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.