By Alan Kovski
The man in line to become the next Interior secretary grew up in a part of Montana that has evolved over the past several decades from a dependence on timber cutting and other resource development to one more oriented toward skiing, hiking and fishing.
Those diverse activities are part of the balancing act managed by the Interior Department, where Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) will soon be working if the Senate confirms him as Interior secretary. Two Montanans who know him say they think he is up to the job.
“He’s a great guy. It really was great working with him,” said Clayton Elliott, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters, an advocacy group.
Elliott told Bloomberg BNA he got to know Zinke in 2011 when Zinke was in the Montana Legislature and Elliott was a lobbyist for conservationists. He worked closely with Zinke on a range of issues, he said.
He described Zinke as a pragmatic straight shooter who wanted to solve problems.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved Zinke’s nomination on a 16-6 vote Jan. 31. Action on his nomination by the full Senate has not yet been scheduled.
In Congress, some of Zinke’s votes have troubled environmental activists, Elliott said. Zinke tended to get good ratings from environmental activists when he was in the state legislature and has gotten lower ratings since entering Congress.
Elliott remembers working with Zinke on efforts to protect the progress Montana had made on using renewable energy.
In 2015 and 2016 Zinke introduced bills to streamline environmental reviews for forest-management projects and provide litigation relief for the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in their land management projects. Such changes tend to be opposed by environmental activists, who want to keep open the option of litigating against projects, especially those involving logging.
The congressman also introduced a bill on the subject of mineral leasing and royalties that reflected state and tribal concerns about the coal leasing moratorium initiated by the Obama administration. He did not oppose the moratorium, but his bill would have mandated an end date (Jan. 15, 2019) for the moratorium and would have allowed leases to be issued for applications already under review.
Zinke is well-suited to the balancing act expected of an Interior secretary, in the view of Jason Thielman, chief of staff to Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.).
Thielman knows Zinke personally and grew up in the same area of Whitefish, Mont., next door to Glacier National Park. It probably was the mountainous environment that inspired Zinke to get a geology degree, Thielman said.
Zinke also is an outdoorsman. “It’s hard not to be, with where he grew up,” Thielman said.
Much has been made of the fact that he was a Navy SEAL for 23 years and served in Iraq during part of that time. He is experienced with stress. “Ryan’s not easily rattled,” Thielman said.
Zinke is likely to hear criticism from many sides if he becomes Interior secretary and must preside over the divvying up of federal lands for various uses—frustrating resource corporations with some decisions, conservationists with other decisions.
“Enduring those slings and arrows is something he’s comfortable doing, doesn’t take personally,” Thielman said.
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