Ryan Zinke, Tell Us How You Really Feel About Public Lands (Like, Really)

Donald Trump’s choice to head the Interior Department says he opposes giving away America’s wilderness. But he voted to make doing so much, much easier.

January 25, 2017

Congressman Ryan Zinke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2016

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Back in July, as delegates to the upcoming 2016 Republican convention were packing their funny hats and polishing their speeches, the Montana delegation suddenly found itself one member short.

And it wasn’t just any old member, either. It was Ryan Zinke, Montana’s lone U.S. Representative, who is now President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior. Zinke had respectfully resigned his position as a delegate after reaching an impasse with the national party over language in the GOP platform, language that he said he simply could not endorse.

These are the two sentences that compelled Zinke to withdraw his name:

“Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to the states. We call upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power of influence to urge the transfer of those lands identified.”

Wow! That’s pretty awesome, right? A rock-ribbed conservative openly defying his party, standing on principle to defend the role of the federal government as the protector of public lands. Shades of Teddy Roosevelt! Sounds like the kind of guy that anybody who cares about our wild spaces would want running Interior, doesn’t it?

Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, is presumably the type of person who doesn’t buckle easily under pressure. Which only adds to the mystery of how and why the man who so bravely stood up for public lands in July could vote, five months later, to throw these same lands into peril. Just a few weeks ago, Zinke voted for a provision that would make it easier for the federal government to give public lands to individual states—which could then do whatever they wanted with them, including selling them off to the highest bidder.

Here are the actual (as opposed to the alternative) facts. In early January, the House of Representatives approved a new provision that would eliminate the normal procedures governing the “conveyance” of federal land to a state. Up until now, the Congressional Budget Office assigned a monetary value of any U.S. land being transferred to a state, with the value based on whatever revenues or benefits that land may have provided to the federal government. Before the transfer could go through, the dollar amount of that estimated value had to be offset somewhere else in the budget.

The net effect of the old rule was to dissuade Congress from giving away large chunks of well-protected U.S. property to cash-strapped states that might then end up selling it off, piecemeal or even whole, to commercial developers or whoever showed up on their statehouse steps with the biggest bag of money. The new rule, however, would remove this hindrance by automatically declaring these transactions to be budget-neutral. No longer could a lawmaker who opposed any given transfer raise a budgetary point of order; as far as the budget was concerned, any such deal would essentially be off the books.

And among the “yea” voters on this ridiculously offensive new provision—which Democratic members of the Congressional Natural Resources Committee immediately deemed “outrageous,” “absurd,” and “fiscally irresponsible”—was none other than Ryan Zinke. Whatever Rooseveltian grit Zinke had brought to bear during the events of last summer was nowhere to be found; in its place appeared to be a sheepish deference to the new administration’s zeitgeist of radical devolution.

But hold on! During his Senate confirmation hearing last week, Zinke seemed to be migrating back to the side of the Bull Moose. “I am absolutely against transfer or sale of public land,” he told Senator Bernie Sanders, who also grilled the nominee on some of his previous, less-than-scientific statements on anthropogenic climate change. Zinke’s unequivocal language (most politicians are too timid to be “absolutely against” anything, for fear of foreclosing on flip-flop opportunities down the line) suggested that he had actually cast his vote a few weeks back out of political necessity—that his heart hadn’t really been in it.

All of which raises the question: Which Ryan Zinke are we supposed to believe?

No one expects the climate-change-denying Scott Pruitt to boldly stand up for the Paris climate agreement, should he actually become the new head of the EPA. No one really thinks that former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, will steer our foreign policy toward international deals that favor renewables over dirty fossil fuels. And certainly no one believes that former Texas governor Rick Perry, if confirmed as Energy Secretary, is going to renounce his heartfelt allegiance to the oil and gas industry that helped put him into power in the first place.

But what are we to make of your mixed signals, Mr. Zinke? In trying to gauge what kind of steward of public lands you’d be, do we look at what you did last July, what you did in early January, or what you said last week?

Should you want to bring some clarity to the matter, here’s some advice: Explain, with all due contrition, that your vote to remove a significant barrier to the disappearance of federally protected lands represented nothing more than a cynical effort to sidestep conservative backlash on the eve of your appointment. Then state, unambiguously and for the record, that as Interior Secretary you will do whatever you can within your considerable power to prevent America’s most precious resources—its wild, wide-open, yet highly vulnerable spaces—from being given away to states that may not have their preservation at heart. While you’re at it, you might use the opportunity to stand up for the inherent, incalculable value of our sacred public lands, affirming that they cannot and must not be treated as just another asset to be bought, sold, or traded. (Oh, and one more thing: It would be nice if you’d consider allowing your staffers to tweet or otherwise disseminate accurate information about the environment without fear of reprisal.)

That would be a decent start. And it would go a long way toward reassuring people—not to mention the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt, who’s watching your every move, I promise you—that you haven’t been hired, like some of your colleagues, to destroy the very department you’ve been charged with leading.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

onEarth Story

Plus, Wheeler ignores factory farm pollution, Zinke ignores damage to wetlands, and Trump ignores public opposition to drilling the Arctic Refuge.

onEarth Story

Americans remind the Interior secretary that this land is our land (and we should be able to afford visiting it).

onEarth Story

A lawsuit forced Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department to disclose files relating to the shrinking of national monuments. It’s easy to see why he wanted them to stay hidden.

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.