It’s official. The Senate voted today to confirm Rep. Ryan Zinke (R–MT) as the nation’s next Secretary of the Interior. The strong majority confirmation vote of 68-31 gives Zinke, a Westerner and fourth–generation Montanan, commanding power over the nation’s most prized public lands and wildlife as well as 70,000 employees, 280,000 volunteers, and a $12 billion annual budget.
The Department of the Interior— a Cabinet-level agency created in 1849 to manage the country’s internal affairs— oversees such critical offices as the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the U.S. Geological Survey, among others.
A former boy scout turned Navy SEAL in the Iraq desert, Zinke grew up 30 minutes outside of Glacier National Park in Montana, an experience he cites as the impetus for his interest and dedication to environmental stewardship. He has promised to “restore trust” in the department and address the $12-billion maintenance backlog in America’s national parks from Alaska to the beaches of Maine.
Republicans hope Zinke will also usher in a “culture of change” to the Interior by repealing many of the Obama administration’s land management policies seen to favor environmentalists over local interests.
Zinke, a Trump administration favorite, was once considered a moderate Republican when it came to environmental and land management issues, siding with Democrats on bipartisan legislation and standing up to fellow Republicans on conservation principles. He challenged Republican colleagues on the transfer of federal lands to the states, for example, speaking out and voting against certain Republican-led proposals. In 2016, he also supported Democrats in calling for full funding and permanent authorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund in a bipartisan effort. Most recently, in July 2016, Zinke publicly withdrew from the Republican Convention due to the party’s support of federal land transfers to the states.
At the same time, Zinke is a vocal advocate for oil and gas development on public lands, fracking and coal mining interests, and weaker protection for endangered species and national monuments, among other anti-environmental platforms, earning him a five percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters and an F rating from the National Parks Action Fund. His recent statements, particularly on the issue of climate change, have some scientists and environmentalists deeply concerned.
On the topic, Zinke openly oscillates between acceptance and denial, both of which he displayed during his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in January. However, unlike President Trump, who flat out denies climate change, Zinke went on record during the hearing citing glacier retreat as evidence that the planet is warming in a heated exchange with Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
Sanders was the first to challenge Zinke on the issue during the hearing.
“Climate change is very important to issues that the Department of the Interior deals with,” said Sanders. “Is President-elect Trump right? Is climate change a hoax?”
Zinke seemed to have a response prepared for the question, launching into a multi-part answer on what he called the “tenants” of his climate change perspective. These include: one, his recognition that climate is changing, and two, his belief that man is an influence. “That is indisputable,” Zinke said, adding later, “I do not believe it is a hoax.”
Zinke offered Glacier National Park as an example of a visible symptom of climate change that he has witnessed personally. “I have seen glaciers over the period of my time recede. As a matter of fact, when my family and I have eaten lunch on Grinnell Glacier, the glacier has receded during lunch,” Zinke said.
This comment prompted chiding from Sen. Angus King (I-ME) later in the proceedings. “I want to thank you for your straightforward admission that climate change is happening, that human activity is contributing to it, and for also the image of the glacier retreating during lunch,” said King. “I am going to add that to my arsenal of climate change anecdotes.”
Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) also weighed on the topic of receding glaciers. “Glacier National Park is going to be… I don’t know, ‘Lake National Park’ or ‘Mountain National Park,'” said Franken. “But it isn’t going to be Glacier National Park in 30 years.”
Around glaciers and the subject of glacier retreat, at least, the body seemed to find common ground. But when further probed by Sanders on whether climate change is a hoax, Zinke seemed hesitant. “I believe we should be prudent to be prudent,” he said. “That means, I don’t know definitively. There is a lot of debate on both sides of the aisle,” a response that did not sit well with Sanders.
“Well, actually, there is not a whole lot of debate now,” replied Sanders. “The scientific community is virtually unanimous that climate change is real and causing devastating problems.”
After several hours of testimony and questions that touched on diverse topics from wildfires in Tennessee, coal mining in West Virginia, protection of wild horses across the West, and the delisting of the greater sage-grouse, the committee ultimately approved Zinke’s nomination by a 16-6 vote, advancing his nomination to the full Senate. He was well received by the Republican senators on the committee who see in the congressman an ally and fellow Westerner sympathetic to regional concerns; less so by environmentalists and some Democrats who fear Zinke will shepherd the department in the wrong direction, perhaps even into an era of public land privatization from which there is no return.
But on this point, Zinke drove a hard line, at least in rhetoric. “I want to be clear on this point. I am absolutely against the transfer or sale of public land,” he said in his testimony. “I can’t be anymore clear.”
He drew attention to his service in the military as an example of his strong backbone. “This is probably one of the reasons why the president elect put a former Navy SEAL in place,” he said. “I don’t yield to pressure. Higher principle, yes. But my job is to advocate for the Department of the Interior to make sure we have the right funds and to be a voice in the room for great public policy.”
But not all Montanans are convinced of Zinke’s ability to lead the Interior Department well.
“I believe that Zinke has at least minimal qualifications to be Secretary of the Interior simply by virtue of coming from a state in which hunting, fishing, hiking and outdoorsmanship are prominent concerns,” said Bill Cox, an economist and Democrat who lives in Montana. “About where he would come down when public lands confront mining companies, oil and gas drillers, and other commercial ambitions, I am much less confident.”
Jamey Loran, a fourth generation Montanan and a certified public accountant who has worked with Native American tribes for the past 15 years, agreed. “It is difficult to pigeon-hole him as a strict environmentalist or anti-regulation proponent. He will almost always do what is in his own political best interest,” he said. “He brings a very simplistic mindset to complex problems. I have little hope that he will have much success dealing with problems such as climate change. In fact, I have grave concerns that matters will get much worse because ‘quick fixes’ always benefit those with economic interests over future generations or endangered species.”
Despite negative views like these, Zinke remains quite popular in his home state, recently winning re-election by a 16-percent margin.
“We are happy with Ryan Zinke as our Secretary of the Interior because he was raised in Montana surrounded by the wilderness and environment, which he will manage as opposed to someone who was raised in the city,” said Carl and Cheryl Baldwin, third-generation conservative ranchers from Montana. “We have talked to him personally as our representative in Congress and know his decisions will not hurt or harm our federal lands.”
Jim Martin, a retired home-builder in Montana, and his wife Judy, added that the balance of timber, recreation, ranching and wilderness is important, something that a Westerner like Zinke understands. “He has lived in other sections of the U.S. so as to realize regional problems with the environment,” said the Martins. “He will not let liberals overpower the conservative right.”
Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who gave the opening statement at the hearing, drew attention to the deep divides along party lines that exist at the end of the Obama administration’s leadership under Secretary Sally Jewell, a former CEO of REI.
“To state that Alaska has had a difficult or tenuous relationship with the outgoing administration is probably more than an understatement,” said Murkowski. “Instead of seeing us as the State of Alaska, our current President and Secretary seem to see us as ‘Alaska, the National Park and Wildlife Refuge’ — a broad expanse of wilderness, with little else of interest or value.’” It is a sentiment that was echoed by other senators from mostly red states throughout the hearing.
Zinke attempted to appease concerns about his ability to work with both sides of the aisle. “Even in this body, we are all different, but we all share a common purpose: to make our country great again. As secretary of the interior, I will have inherited 70,000 hard charging, dedicated professionals that want to do the same thing,” he said. “My task is to organize for a better future for interior and our country. I will work with anybody, as the list would indicate. I’ve never been red or blue. To me it has always been red, white and blue.”
Environmentalists, opposed to Zinke, must now hope awareness of the disappearance of our white glaciers might promote coordinated action between red and blue leadership under the new secretary, before it is too late.