WASHINGTON, Dec. 15, 2016 - President-elect Donald Trump announced that he has picked as Interior Secretary first-term Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, who has bucked his GOP colleagues over public lands issues while supporting expanded energy development.

Zinke “has built one of the strongest track records on championing regulatory relief, forest management, responsible energy development and public land issues,” Trump said. 

Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, has supported energy development on federal lands and voted to block some endangered species protections, but has won praise from conservation groups for his support of keeping lands under federal management rather than turning them over to states.

Hans McPherson, a rancher who is president of the Montana Farm Bureau, praised Zinke as “someone who understands the challenges we face in the West whether it’s grazing, logging or mining. It’s going to be a great opportunity to see some of the heavy handed regulations that were being forced upon us relieved. Agriculture has had a very congenial relationship with Congressman Zinke, and we expect that that relationship will continue.”

The Interior Department’s responsibilities include the Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages wildlife refuges and enforces the Endangered Species Act; the Bureau of Land Management, which manages 245 million acres, more than any other federal agency; the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Zinke, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, is a hunter and fisherman who supports full funding and permanent authorization for the Land and Water Conversation Fund, a position that puts Zinke at odds with the committee’s chairman, Rob Bishop, R-Utah.

In a quote released by the Trump transition office Thursday, Zinke invoked Theodore Roosevelt’s name in vowing to protect public lands: “As inscribed in the stone archway of Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Montana, 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.”

Donald Trump Jr., an avid hunter, reportedly played a role in Zinke’s selection. Transition spokesman Jason Miller said it was no secret that the son has been actively involved in the transition process.

Ethan Lane, executive director of the Public Lands Council, which represents the interests of cattle producers who graze on federal lands, said the Trump operation had made clear that the new administration was not going to give up control of federal lands. But he said Zinke’s help will be needed in addressing endangered species and other management issues.

Zinke “tries to find the common sense approach to making sure that our federal lands in the west are being managed properly,” Lane said. His group will be seeking congressional action to allow states to supersede sage grouse management requirements and to block a new BLM planning process that would reduce local involvement in management decisions, Lane said. 

Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. described Zinke as “pro public lands to the point where he’s been willing to buck his own party.”

Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said Zinke's love of the outdoors is authentic.

“We look forward to seeking common ground on a range of other land management and wildlife protection issues, and, when necessary, reminding him of the importance of conservation to our outdoor heritage and our economy,” he said.

Chris Wood, CEO of Trout Unlimited, told Bloomberg News that there had been a lot of concern about the Interior appointment “given the Republican Party platform about divesting public lands, but we get quite the opposite here” in Zinke. “His background of being a hunter and angler himself probably served him well in terms of relationship with Donald Jr."

Not an Agri-Pulse subscriber? Get our Daily Harvest email and Daybreak audio Monday through Friday mornings, a 16-page newsletter on Wednesdays, and access to premium content on our ag and rural policy website. Sign up for your four-week free trial Agri-Pulse subscription.

Other environmentalists have been sharply critical of Zinke’s selection. The League of Conservation Voters gave Zinke a score of only 3 percent for his first year in office in 2015. LCV hasn’t issued a scorecard for this year yet.

“His brief political career has been substantially devoted to attacking endangered species and the Endangered Species Act,” said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “He led efforts to strip federal protections for endangered wolves, lynx and sage grouse, voted to exempt massive agribusiness and water developers from Endangered Species Act limitations, and opposed efforts to crack down on the international black market ivory trade.”

Zinke has criticized federal management plans for the sage grouse and has voted in the House to block ESA protections for the lesser prairie chicken and other species.

In 2015, for example, he supported an amendment by Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., to delist the lesser prairie chicken and burying beetle, and Zinke opposed a Democratic amendment that would stripped the Interior-Environment spending bill of riders intended to bar ESA listings for the greater sage grouse and gray wolf.

The National Parks Conservation Association faults Zinke for his support of oil and gas development on federal lands.

An analysis of Trump’s nominees by ClearView Energy Partners forecast that would play a key role in expanding oil and gas production: “Zinke’s short Congressional resume of pro-production initiatives includes support for: (1) lifting the U.S. crude oil export ban; (2) approving the Keystone XL pipeline; (3) expediting natural gas pipeline permitting; (4) mining oversight and regulatory reforms; and (5) hydroelectric facility expansion.”