WASHINGTON, Jan. 4, 2017 - The incoming president’s pick to head the Interior Department, Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana, will have his hands full overseeing agencies that have an enormous amount of public land under their control, and an enormous amount of influence over land-use decisions throughout the West.

Interior agencies oversee about 500 million acres of the 640 million acres of federal public lands in the U.S. About half of that – 248 million acres – belongs to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), with the rest divided among other Interior agencies such as the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

If past is prologue, expect Zinke to focus on expanding energy development on public lands and put pressure on the Fish and Wildlife Service, both to keep animals off the endangered species list and remove some that have been there for decades, such as the grizzly bear.

Just don’t expect him to unload the government’s natural resources portfolio.

In June, when he voted in the House Natural Resources Committee against a bill sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, to transfer 2 million acres of Forest Service land to state ownership, he said, “I’m starting to wonder how many times I have to tell these guys in leadership, I’m not going to allow Montana’s public lands to be sold or given away.”

As might be expected of someone who was a Navy SEAL for 23 years, rising to the rank of commander, Zinke has no problem charting his own course. He was the only Republican on the committee to cross party lines to vote against the bill.

While conceding that “the federal government needs to do a much better job of managing our resources,” he said that “the sale or transfer of our land is an extreme proposal and I won’t tolerate it.”

Zinke has consistently voted to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and was heartily endorsed for the Interior post by sportsmen’s groups, as well as by the Association of State Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

“He’s a lifelong outdoorsman, who we’ve found to be receptive to sportsmen’s interests in Montana and D.C.,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We won’t agree with him on everything, but we think he’s someone who will listen and has the right instincts.” Other groups with favorable things to say about him include Trout Unlimited and the Montana Wildlife Federation.

Other organizations blasted his record. Jamie Clark, CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, said Zinke’s “legislative record reveals targeted attacks on our public lands. He has repeatedly promoted increased logging, drilling, grazing and mining on federal lands throughout the country.”

But other environmental groups took a more cautious approach. American Rivers’ Northern Rockies Director Scott Bosse – in a web posting, “Ten Things You need to Know About Ryan Zinke” – said “it’s unclear” what kind of Interior Secretary Zinke will be.

“On some issues (for example, keeping public lands in public hands and permanently reauthorizing the LWCF), he is likely to be more like Teddy Roosevelt,” Bosse said. “But on other issues (promoting more fossil fuel extraction on public lands), he could be more like James Watt, the notorious Interior Secretary under President Ronald Reagan.”

When it comes to energy exploration and development, the Independent Petroleum Association of America sees Zinke moving away from what IPAA believes has been an overly restrictive approach by the Obama Administration.

“I think the key here is balance,” Dan Naatz, IPAA’s senior vice president of government relations and political affairs, said in an interview. Over the past eight years, “You had a sense that that balance has gotten out of whack,” with “conservation and single uses (allowed) on a lot of these (federal) lands” and “Keep It in the Ground” movement gaining momentum.

“Nobody’s talking about drilling in national parks or wilderness areas,” Naatz said. But at the same time, “We don’t see any reason to put areas off limits in perpetuity,” because new technologies can allow energy development with a smaller footprint.

Zinke has emphasized innovation in development of American energy resources. “I’m a former geologist,” he told Agri-Pulse in a Meet the Lawmaker interview last year. “I was told we were going to run out of crude oil years ago. That’s not true with horizontal drilling and the innovation. As it turns out, America has an energy picture and a portfolio that’s larger than any nation on earth.”

Zinke emphasized “responsible” energy development in November, criticizing a BLM rule requiring oil and gas companies to take action to prevent or reduce venting and flaring of methane from their operations.

“BLM has issued a duplicative and unnecessary rule against responsible oil and gas development in Montana and on sovereign tribal lands,” Zinke said. “This rule is a stark reminder that we need to invest in infrastructure projects like the Keystone pipeline, so we don’t need to flare excess gas.”

IPAA’s Naatz agreed that “if there is venting and flaring going on, it needs to be addressed.” But, he said, in a comment that aligns with Zinke’s view, “States already do a really good job of (regulating) that already.”

On endangered species, Zinke’s positions have been in line with his party. He has backed amendments to appropriations bills to delist the lesser prairie chicken and the American burying beetle. And he has been an outspoken critic of federal land management plans, developed in consultation with 10 Western states, to conserve sagebrush habitat. The Obama administration used those plans to justify not listing the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

Zinke, however, has called the effort “BLM's ‘Washington knows best’ sage-grouse plan.” When the Interior Department announced in September 2015 that the bird wouldn’t be listed, he said the federal government was “executing a massive land grab that will restrict agriculture, mining, wind farms, oil and gas development, and other natural resource development.”

The government’s plans call for limits on grazing and energy development in sage-grouse habitat. BLM, for example, just proposed withdrawing 10 million acres of sage-grouse habitat in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming from future mining claims.

Zinke also didn’t mince words in commenting on a proposal for a 3 million-acre free-range bison habitat in his state. After questioning BLM officials at a hearing last year and receiving what he thought were unsatisfactory answers, he said in a news release, “What’s the point of having these bureaucrats come before Congress if they don’t know a damn thing about multimillion acre projects that they have some jurisdiction over? Farmers and ranchers in the (Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge) and surrounding area could lose their livelihoods. This is a big deal, and for the BLM and DOI to not even put the time in to learn about the issue is a slap in the face to Montana. Heads will roll. This is not acceptable.”

As the top bureaucrat at DOI – assuming he gets confirmed – Zinke will now have a unique opportunity to make those heads roll.


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