Ryan Zinke’s rough ride

Confirmation hearing raises questions about whether he’ll look to Teddy Roosevelt or campaign donors as Interior Secretary

President Theodore Roosevelt | Congressman Ryan Zinke

We learned more about Congressman Ryan Zinke’s plans to run the Interior Department during his confirmation hearing Tuesday. The Montanan, who’s vying to run the department that oversees the management of national parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands, professed his admiration for Theodore Roosevelt, whose legacy of conserving our national public lands lives on today.

While the desire to follow in Roosevelt’s footsteps is admirable, Zinke’s responses raised serious questions about whether he will conserve our public lands and bolster the outdoor economy or cater to the oil, gas, and coal companies that have donated to his political campaigns.

Throughout his career in Congress, Zinke has talked a good game about supporting our public lands and ensuring access for hunting, fishing, camping and hiking. He even resigned as a delegate to the Republican National Convention over an anti-public lands platform and has supported re-authorizing the popular Land and Water Conservation Fund.

However, actions speak louder than words.

On the first day of the new Congress, Zinke voted to change House rules, ordering the Congressional Budget Office to declare any transfer or sale of public lands as revenue neutral. This accounting gimmick greases the skids for legislation to give away our public lands.

Some of Zinke’s statements during the hearing raised new questions about his commitments to safeguarding America’s parks and public lands, and certainly continued the ongoing theme of Rep. Zinke saying one thing, then doing something else.

Here are the three questions we’re most concerned about:

Will Zinke protect public lands or line the pockets of campaign donors?

In his opening statement, Zinke noted that, while some public lands should be protected, “the preponderance of our federal holdings are better suited to be managed under the Pinchot model of multiple use.”

That’s a commendable position when taken at face value. But Rep. Zinke is implying that our national public lands aren’t currently managed for multiple uses, which couldn’t be further from the truth. It is very troubling that Secretary Zinke will take the opportunity to tilt the scale even further towards oil and gas developers who already are a dominant use on America’s public lands. One recent study found that 90 percent of lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management are open for leasing and drilling, while only 10 percent are set aside for conservation.

Undoubtedly oil, gas and coal companies will have Zinke’s ear when they look to mine and drill on our public lands. In his brief career in Congress, Zinke has accepted more than $340,000 from the oil and gas industry. He has accepted contributions from companies such as Halliburton, Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips, all of which conduct business with the department he will oversee. Similarly, officials from Oasis Petroleum, an oil and gas company with interests in 50,000 acres of public lands, donated more than $40,000 to Zinke’s election efforts.

Also troubling: during the hearing Zinke said he would support a Congressional effort to eliminate rules that reduce methane waste from drilling operations on public lands, an effort which is on the wish list of the Koch-backed Freedom Partners. This common-sense program ensures that taxpayers get a fair share for resources produced on public land. But Zinke appeared to want it both ways, first voicing his support for eliminating these safeguards, then saying he was troubled by how much natural gas we are wasting.

Will Zinke work to eliminate national monuments, something never done before?

Though Zinke claimed that some American lands deserve recognition, he seemed to waver on efforts to eliminate existing national monuments. After being pushed by Utah Senator Mike Lee, Zinke noted “we have a problem, obviously, in the great state of Utah,” apparently referring to the recently-designated Bears Ears National Monument.

Bears Ears | Tim Peterson

The Bears Ears National Monument, encompassing thousands of ruins and rock art threatened by looting and vandalism, was designated at the behest of many Native American tribes that consider the area sacred. Throughout the hearing, Zinke professed his respect for Native Americans and maintained that he is a firm believer in tribal sovereignty. As Zinke travels to Utah in the coming months, we’ll see whether Secretary Zinke, the supporter of tribes and public lands, will show up, or if the Secretary Zinke who considers our new national monument a “problem” prioritizes Utah politicians over tribal interests.

Will Zinke backtrack on commitments to oppose the transfer of national public lands?

Early in the hearing, Zinke sought to underscore his support for keeping our lands public, stating “I am absolutely against transfer or sale of public land.” Unfortunately, later in the hearing Zinke voiced support for turning over management of some public lands to states and localities. Divesting management over America’s public lands might be a windfall for coal, oil, and gas companies who have supported Rep. Zinke’s political career, but in practice it means less access for American’s onto their public lands. The outcome of this policy maneuver would be functionally equivalent to wholesale land disposals.

When Representative Zinke becomes Interior Secretary, he has an opportunity to turn his admiration for Theodore Roosevelt into action. America has many special places that we must conserve for future generations, from our city parks to national monuments. As he takes office, we’ll be watching to see if he lives up to the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt or simply caters to campaign donors.