Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke is the Trump administration’s pick for Secretary of the Interior, where he would be in charge of managing 254 million acres of federal lands. Many who expected Sarah Palin to be the pick are breathing a sigh of relief — Zinke considers himself a conservationist, a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican” as opposed to a “Drill, Baby, Drill!” Republican.
Having grown up an avid hunter and fisher, Zinke’s devotion to our public lands isn’t really in question. What is in question is how the new Secretary of the Interior could prioritize the varying interests of the federal government, the states, and the energy lobbyists that have donated to his campaigns in the past. Here’s what we found out at Zinke’s confirmation hearing on Tuesday.
1. He believes in climate change (but is quick to point out he's "not a climate scientist expert").
Senator Bernie Sanders asked Zinke, directly, if he thought that climate change was a “hoax,” as the president-elect has stated. Zinke said, “Climate is changing. Man is an influence. I think where there is debate on it is what that influence is and what we can do about it… I’m not a climate scientist expert, but I can tell you, I will become a lot more familiar with it, and it will be based on objective science.” While not a full-throated endorsement of the idea that man-made climate change is a crisis, it’s better than some expected. To be clear, Zinke has said in the past, “It's not a hoax, but it's not proven science either.”
2. He opposes the transfer of public lands.
The house recently voted for a rule change that would ease the transfer of public lands to the states — and Zinke voted for said rule. But when asked by Senate Democrats about his views on the transfer of public land, Zinke responded, “I am absolutely against transfer or sale of public land,” and said he would not vote for the House rule again.
3. … But that doesn’t mean he’s against leasing public land to the oil and gas industry.
“The president elect has said that we want to be [energy] independent. It is better to produce energy domestically under reasonable regulation than watch it be produced overseas with no regulation.” While he says he’s been a strong supporter of NEPA (The National Environmental Policy Act), he also said that we need a strong economy moving forward and that “energy is a part of that economy.”
4. He is concerned about the "elitism of our traditional hunting and fishing."
Holding public land for recreation is typically in conflict with holding land for mining and drilling. Zinke doesn’t quite see it that way, and wants to make most public lands multiuse in the spirit of recreation and economic growth. “What I’ve been seeing most recently is our access being shut off,” he said, “and when you don’t have access to our hunting areas, or our traditional fishing areas, then it makes it an elite sport, and I’m particularly concerned about the elitism of our traditional hunting and fishing. There are some areas that need to be set aside that are absolutely appropriate for man to be an observer. And there are special places in our country that deserve that recognition.”
5. He plans to lobby Trump on infrastructure to help revitalize National Parks.
The Trump administration has proposed a (so far unseen) infrastructure bill, and Zinke sees a place for National Parks in it. “[We need to prioritize] the estimated $12.5 billion in backlog of maintenance and repair in our National Parks,” he told the committee.
6. He holds a zero-tolerance policy on sexual assault in the National Park Service.
Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth questioned Zinke on his response to sexual assault, an issue that has been plaguing the National Park Service. Zinke, who is a former Navy SEAL commander, responded: “I take issues of sexual assault and harassment absolutely seriously. As a military commander, the tolerance is zero.” Duckworth brought up something Zinke has said in the past, that “women who serve in combat provide a distraction and it weakens the force.” After an awkward beat, Zinke responded, “Within the park service there are women that assume every role… I think we should be comfortable with it.”
7. He plans to respect tribal sovereignty.
On being questioned about the protests at Standing Rock, Zinke said, “I have great respect for the Indian nations. I’m adopted Assiniboine. There is deep cultural ties, and a feeling that we haven’t been a fair consultant or fair partner, so I think we need to listen to that voice.” That said, he still plans to work with law enforcement to bring any protests to a peaceful close.
8. He believes millennials don’t get outdoors enough.
As an outdoorsman, Zinke wants to spread the love around. And that starts with the young folks. “We have to motivate and incentivize outdoor activities to teach our millennials the importance of the great outdoors,” he said. “In many cases it’s better than in front of a TV, watching video games.” Good luck.