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On the Nomination PN31: Ryan Zinke, of Montana, to be Secretary of the Interior

Mar 1, 2017 at 10:33 a.m. ET.

Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) was President Donald Trump’s nominee to serve as Secretary of the Interior. This vote by the Senate confirmed the nomination.

Zinke, a first-term congressman elected in 2014 who resigned from Congress immediately following the vote so that he could hold another office, served on the House Natural Resources Committee, including the Subcommittees on Energy and Natural Resources and Federal Lands. What bills had Zinke introduced and how had he voted in Congress, especially on issues related to federal lands and natural resources?

Heading up the Department of the Interior

The Department of the Interior, one of the least-known Cabinet departments, is more important than most people realize. The federal government owns 608.9 million acres of land, or about 28 percent of total U.S. land. Tasked with managing America’s natural resources, the Interior Department manages all this land, plus an additional 1.7 billion acres offshore. Their 10 bureaus include the Bureau of Indian Affairs which provides funding and services for the 556 federally recognized Indian tribes, and the National Park Service which has jurisdiction over the 56 national parks that attracted 307 million attendees last year. They also are one of the primary departments dealing with oil drilling (along with the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency).

Zinke’s Certainty for States and Tribes Act

Zinke had introduced 22 bills, several of which deal with issues that could come up at the Interior Department. One in particularly reflects the hands-off states-first approach he would likely apply to the federal agency.

H.R. 5259, the Certainty for States and Tribes Act, in the 114th Congress, would establish a new State and Tribal Resources Board that “can delay the issuance of a final regulation by Interior if the board determines that such regulation will have a negative state or Tribal budgetary or economic impact” according to a Congressional Research Service summary of the bill. With such a vague standard in place, in practice the Board would probably be able to delay or kill almost any Interior Department regulation.

The bill was aimed at today’s pro-conservation Interior Department. “The Obama Administration has unilaterally stripped Montana’s… voices from the conversation about how we can mine and use our own clean coal resources,” Zinke said in a statement. “[I]t became clear that the only way to ensure they have a seat at the table is through Congressional action. It’s a shame I even had to introduce this bill and that Congress has to codify the ability for the American people to weigh in on our own livelihoods.”

Although the bill attracted 13 cosponsors, all Republicans, and passed the House Natural Resources Committee 22–13 in September, we don’t know if he would support his own bill once (and if) he is confirmed as secretary of the department that the bill would take power away from. (We emailed Zinke’s office but did not get a response.)

Oil and the Keystone XL pipeline

The controversial proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would run through Zinke’s home state of Montana, was opposed by President Obama and Hillary Clinton out of environmental concerns. That opposition was frequently cited by congressional Republicans as Exhibit A of the administration’s job-killing proposals. The Interior Department was one of several agencies involved in the permitting and review process through its Bureau of Land Management, which cited potential “long-term, damaging effects on wildlife” should the pipeline be constructed.

The House voted in January 2015 to approve the pipeline, mere days after being sworn in. Zinke voted in favor. “President Obama turned his back on Montana, turned his back on American workers, and turned his back on our closest neighbor and ally, Canada,” Zinke said in a statement. “[T]his president would rather use the 40,000 jobs and American energy independence as a political football to score points with donors leading into a tough election year.”

The House and Senate both voted with majorities in favor, but the Senate was unable to muster the two-thirds necessary to override Obama’s veto. Trump has vowed to build the pipeline after all, and Zinke seems likely to lead the way. Zinke also opposes Obama’s move during the closing weeks of his presidency to prevent 115 million acres of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans from oil drilling, in waters that the U.S jointly controls with Canada.

The Ammon Bundy standoff and federal ownership of land

Renegade rancher and outspoken libertarian-conservative Ammon Bundy sparked national headlines in January 2016 when he led an armed occupation of an Oregon national wildlife refuge for more than a month. Occupiers were protesting what they believed to be the unconstitutionality of the Interior Department and other federal agencies owning land, arguing that land should be the province of the states and privates individuals. The case received a fresh round of scrutiny in October 2016 when a jury acquitted them all, in a verdict that stunned legal experts.

“I will never agree with the transfer or sale of public lands,” Zinke told the Montana Standard in a recent interview. “I have voted against that along with voting for the Land and Water Conservation Fund I think 17 times. I view our public lands as sacred and access to our public lands has to be part of it because we’re shutting gates, we’re closing roads and the public is losing access.”

However, opposition to federal ownership of any land has become a rising issue within a vocal segment of the Republican Party over the past few years, most notably from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). While Zinke has not expressed outright support for that ideology, he did vote for a bill amendment that would have made it harder for the federal government to protect federal lands in the West (including Montana), by preventing the president from declaring them as national monuments.

Yucca Mountain and storage of radioactive waste

The U.S. government currently has no long-term storage location for its more than 100 million gallons of radioactive waste. Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a huge geological formation in the desert that very few people live anywhere near, was designated as the underground location ever since 1987. It’s surrounded by federal land, putting it under the purview of the Interior Department. But nearly three decades later Yucca has yet to actually be utilized for its designated purpose.

President Obama and Hillary Clinton both opposed it, ostensibly on safety and environmental grounds, although some critics suspect Obama’s opposition may have been at least partially to not anger longtime Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, perhaps the single Democrat most opposed to the dumping of 100 million gallons of radioactive waste in his state.

Zinke does not appear to have publicly weighed in yet. Neither has Trump, although he told a Nevada television station that he “promised to take a very strong look at it” and “come [out] strongly one way or the other.” However, one can easily imagine Trump supporting the issue, citing its three-decade holdup as an example of government gridlock and its stalling due in no small part to Sen. Reid as an example of establishment politician cronyism.

Mount McKinley vs. Mount Denali.

The single decision by Obama’s Interior Department that has attracted the most public attention and controversy is symbolic more than consequential, but is noteworthy nonetheless. In 2015, President Obama’s Interior Department under Secretary Sally Jewell renamed Alaska’s Mount McKinley — which it had been officially called since 1917 — back to Mount Denali, the name preferred by Alaskan natives.

Many Republicans objected, arguing that William McKinley was a great president and that the longstanding name should remain. Most Democrats cheered the move, noting that it honored Alaskan heritage that goes back much earlier than 1917, with some even criticizing opponents as whitewashing or racist. The name change, expected to fly somewhat below the radar in the other 49 states, sparked a much bigger national debate.

Although Zinke does not appear to have weighed in on the issue, Trump supports reversing back to McKinley, tweeting, “President Obama wants to change the name of Mt. McKinley to Denali after more than 100 years. Great insult to Ohio. I will change back!” (McKinley hailed from Ohio.) Zinke didn’t cosponsor H.R. 437, a House bill to retain the name as McKinley, although the bill never received a vote so we don’t know how Zinke would have voted.

Zinke’s bio

Zinke quickly proved himself one of the most conservative members of Congress. Zinke ranks as the 23rd most conservative legislator according to our statistical analysis. And with two of his bills enacted already, that’s more than most representatives.

Zinke was first elected to Congress in 2014, from the at-large district for Montana. Previously, he served as a one-term state senator in the Montana legislature. Before that he was a Commander in the Navy SEALs who served in Iraq, making him the first Navy SEAL elected to Congress. He also played college football as a center for the University of Oregon. Zinke ultimately won out the Interior position despite reports that Trump had offered the spot to fellow Congress member Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA5).

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Nay 31%
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