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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Oil, Conservation, And Tribal Groups Sound-Off On Zinke's Nomination To Interior

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Courtesy Ryan Zinke
Rep. Ryan Zinke is President-elect Trump's nominee for secretary of the Interior.

On Thursday morning, Congressman Ryan Zinke issued his first press release since media outlets broke the news he was President Elect Donald Trump’s top pick for Secretary of the Interior. In it, he wrote, "I am honored and humbled to be asked to serve Montana and America as Secretary of Interior."

The confirmation unleashed a mixed bag of reactions.

"We're approaching this nomination, we're hoping for the best and preparing for the worst," says Drew Caputo, a vice president at Earthjustice, a law firm that frequently litigates endangered species, water and public lands issues.

"Congressman Zinke has shown some important independence from Republican party orthodoxy on a couple of environmental issues," Caputo says.

For example, Zinke talks big about keeping public lands in federal hands and broke from the GOP in voting in favor of clean energy funding. However:

"Literally the rest of his voting record during his two years in Congress is awful for the environment," says Caputo.

Zinke has voted against updating fracking regulations on federal public lands, limited the president’s ability to designate National Monuments, and favored bills with riders that undermine the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. This voting record earned him a three-percent rating with the League of Conservation Voters last year.

In addition, Caputo worries Zinke may feel beholden to fossil fuel industries, which contributed $200,000 to his 2016 campaign:

"In order to be an effective Interior secretary and steward these priceless public resources that belong to all Americans, a critical part of the job is standing up to industry, especially fossil fuel interests that want to take action that would harm those resources."

Caputo adds that in order to fulfill the Interior secretary’s mandates to steward public lands, resources and wildlife for future generations, Zinke will also have to stand up to President-elect Donald Trump’s aggressive extractive agenda.

"The real question is, which Ryan Zinke are we going to see as Interior secretary," Caputo asks. "The Ryan Zinke who stands up and says that selling off public lands is a non-starter? or the Ryan Zinke who has repeatedly cast anti-enviro votes during his two years in Congress? And I am very hopeful that we'll see the former rather than the latter.

Industry leaders in Montana are optimistic a Zinke-led Interior Department will mean a rollback in current oil and gas leasing and drilling restrictions on federal lands.

Alan Olson is the executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association:

"What we would like from Ryan, and I have no doubt we will see him start to work towards this, is regulatory certainty."

Olson says under the Obama administration, rule-making has skyrocketed, adding burdens to an already volatile industry. He says the lag time between applying to drill on Bureau of Land Management land and receiving a permit can take up to two years, and can cost many times what the state charges.

Olson says the BLM should take a note from how Western states regulate on state lands:

"I think we can cut down our permitting time," Olson says. "I think there needs to be some look at the cost of drilling permits. I think there needs to be some thought that goes into the regulating side of the BLM on split estates."

States receive about half of the revenue generated by oil and gas lease permits and royalties on federal lands. In 2014, Montana collected slightly more than $34 million, down from almost $70 million in 2008.

Olson says he hopes Zinke keeps that in mind in his new role:

"I think the congressman, when he takes over as secretary of the Interior, is going to pay attention to impediments to responsibly developing mineral resources across the country," says Olson.

Zinke is also receiving strong support from Indian Country:

"So far he's been a great listener. I think, generally speaking, I think most of the tribes are heavily supportive of him," says William Snell, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council and an enrolled member of the Crow tribe.

Tribes are affected by several of the agencies the Interior Secretary oversees, most notably, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Snell says quality of life on reservations can change for the better if the Interior secretary has experience working with tribes, as Zinke does:

"He's been a listener, he listens to our needs and he understands those needs, so now it's just a matter of taking them and helping us resolve some of those things."

One of the things Snell hopes Zinke would address is improving the government-to-government relationship between federal agencies and tribes:

"I know that the law requires consultation with tribes but we hope it's not just a gesture and a process," Snell says. "We hope it's meaningful and we hope that he gives us a chance to help develop what a true consultation effort is really about, not something just has to be done, but actually a true partnership."

Montana tribal leaders issued a flurry of letters supporting Zinke’s appointment over the past few days.

Mark Azure, president of the Fort Belknap Tribal Council, wrote in a statement he has, "complete confidence that Congressman Zinke would be very successful in that role," adding that Zinke is an advocate for tribes. Zinke is an adopted member of the Assiniboine tribe of the Fort Belknap Reservation.

Gerald Gray, chairman of the Little Shell Chippewa tribal council, wrote he looks forward to working with Zinke and called him a steadfast friend.

Vernon Finley, chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, says he’s already called Congressman Zinke to congratulate him on his appointment:

"Certainly Congressman Zinke's record of willingness to work with tribes on various legislation as well as other actions show that he's someone who the tribes would be able to work with."

Finley says Zinke has a strong record of working with tribes on issues like water compacts, supporting tribal sovereignty in natural resource management decisions, and securing funding for tribal programs. He says that kind of experience is unusual for an Interior secretary, and is pleased with President-elect Trump’s pick:

"Given that it's going to be Republican agenda, having a tribal perspective, at least someone who understands and has worked with the tribe, having a tribal perspective at the table, as well as somebody from Montana, who understands Montana's issues and what is important here to this state, which hasn't been at the table for several administrations, so I think that's really where we would have to focus."

Moving forward, Congressman Zinke’s appointment will need approval from the Senate, which could happen any time after President-elect Trump is inaugurated on January 20.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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