Indefinitely Wild

How Ryan Zinke Really Feels About Our Public Lands

Trump's pick for Secretary of the Interior gets grilled in the confirmation hearing about federal land management, resource extraction, and Smokey the Bear

The outdoors' friend in the Trump cabinet? We're cautiously optimistic. (U.S. House of Representatives)

On Tuesday, Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke underwent his confirmation hearing to become Secretary of the Interior. It’s his first chance to publicly state what his intentions are in the position and what he thinks the future of our public lands can and should look like.

Why does this matter? As Secretary of the Interior, Zinke will be responsible for managing the Department of the Interior and its 12 agencies. Those include the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. In this role, Zinke will be responsible for managing our nation’s 640 million acres of public land, including our national parks, our water resources, our wildlife, and even our treaties with Native American tribes. He’ll also be our best advocate for protecting those resources in the Trump cabinet. Right now, the Republican Party controls both houses of Congress and is actively trying to steal our public land. Can Zinke stop them? Does he want to? This is what he has to say. 

Let’s look at the important questions from the hearing today—and how Zinke answered them. 


Should the GOP steal your land? 

At first, Zinke appeared unequivocal on this issue. Public lands should remain in public hands, he said. The trouble now: his voting record on the issue is mixed. While Zinke came into the nomination with a Congressional voting record in opposition to the public-land heist, earlier this month he voted in favor of House Resolution 5, which makes it easier for ownership of these lands to be transferred to the states. 


How will he work to advance Native American rights?

Senators asked numerous questions about a variety of Native American issues. While Zinke was overall knowledgeable and compassionate on the topic, he by no means offered a comprehensive vision for advancing tribal rights. 


Is climate change real? 

I feel bad for Zinke on this one. He’s clearly a rational human being who understands that climate change is both a fact and a huge threat. But he also has his hands tied by the need to adhere to the clearly insane dogma of the party he belongs to and that of the President Elect who appointed him. The hardest questioning on this disparity came from Al Franken, who produced the letter Zinke signed in 2010, which called climate change “a threat multiplier for instability in the most volatile regions of the world,” and argued that “the clean energy and climate challenge is America's new space race.”

Unfortunately, time ran out before Franken could ask Zinke if he had changed his position for purposes of short-term profit. 


Is Smokey the Bear real?

Finally, real talk on this important debate. 


Should the President have the ability to create national monuments? 

Like climate change, this was another tricky one for Zinke. He seems to understand that protecting important land may require executive action, and he also subscribes to the GOP dogma that executive power is only an issue when Democrats are in office. Look for Bears Ears to be a horrifying political sideshow this year, possibly working as a distraction to divert our attention from the progressing public-land heist.


What about energy and mineral extraction on public land? 

This is the double edged sword we’re getting in Zinke. While he does appear to be a proponent of not selling off our public lands (yay!), he does want to see them opened up to more extraction (boo!). Extraction pollutes, damages wildlife habitat, and speeds climate change, causing further damage to these natural places. So while we are hopefully getting someone who will at least maintain public ownership of most of this land, we’re making it harder for those generations to maintain and enjoy it. Franken complimented Zinke on his clear affection for his grandchildren, who attended the hearing. I wonder how they’ll feel about their grandfather’s legacy. 


What will Zinke do about sexual harassment in national parks? 

This is a big deal. Zinke sounded strong in his commitment to address it, but provided zero details on how to do so, other than a zero-tolerance policy. 


Will Zinke make a good Secretary of the Interior?

As a public land owner, outdoorsperson, and conservationist, I’m cautiously optimistic. I hope that he’ll be an advocate for retaining public ownership of public land, but fear the overall environmental impact of at least two years under an entirely Republican-controlled federal government. I think our best glimpse into Zinke’s character comes not from his service as a Navy SEAL, but from his passion for hunting and fishing. Those activities instill in participants a strong passion for animal conservation, land stewardship, and for the egalitarian tradition of multi-use, public land management.

The issues raised in this article are much larger than can be summarized here. No matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on, you can benefit from learning more about them. Start here: 

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