President-elect Donald Trump has offered the position of Interior secretary to freshman Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT), a retired Navy Seal with a mixed record on conservation and energy policy. Zinke has reportedly accepted the position.
If confirmed by the Senate, Zinke would be tasked with managing the federal government’s 500 million acres of public land. The Interior Department oversees the national park system and energy development on federal lands and offshore. The agency is also in charge of protecting archaeological sites and sacred native lands.
Zinke, 55, has said he supports an “all of the above” energy policy that includes a mix of renewable and fossil fuel development. But he has notably split with his party on the issue of who controls public lands.
He withdrew from the Republican nominating committee earlier this year because the GOP platform called for the transfer of public land from the federal government to the states. Critics have long argued the transfer would make the areas more vulnerable to privatization and development.
Since joining Congress last year, Zinke, who holds Montana’s sole congressional seat, has voted multiple times to prevent such measures. He is also a proponent of fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal program to conserve land and boost outdoor recreation.
“We use our land for hunting, fishing, hiking, and to create jobs,” Zinke said in a statement last year in response to efforts to put public land in the hands of the state. “Our outdoor economy is a billion dollar economic engine for the state that creates jobs. The federal government needs to do a much better job of managing our resources, but the sale or transfer of our land is an extreme proposal, and I won’t tolerate it.”
While calling for the conservation of public lands, Zinke has also advocated for fossil fuel development, including the construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, as a way to lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
The pipeline, which was backed by the oil industry and most congressional Republicans but rejected by President Obama, has become a flash point in the national debate over energy and climate policy in recent years.
Zinke’s stance on Keystone has earned him sharp criticism from environmental groups.
“The need to keep dirty fuels in the ground is urgent, especially on public lands,” the Sierra Club said in a statement on Tuesday in response to Zinke’s likely nomination. “We cannot afford to have someone in charge who traffics in climate denial and acts accordingly.”
The National Parks Conservation Association issued a more measured response, noting Zinke’s mixed record.
“It is critical that, if confirmed, Mr. Zinke address the needs of our national parks, with recognition of their immense benefits to our nation’s natural resources and cultural history,” Theresa Pierno, President and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement.
Ryan is a fifth-generation Montanan, and would follow in the tradition of past Interior secretaries, most of whom came from Western states. He graduated with a degree in geology from the University of Oregon before joining the military. Zinke spent 23 years as a Navy Seal, retiring in 2008. Zinke was elected to the Montana State Senate the same year, and served until 2011.
In 2012, Zinke ran for lieutenant governor of Montana but his ticket lost in the Republican primaries.
He entered Congress in 2015, defeating a Democrat and Libertarian for the open congressional seat vacated by Steve Daines, who won a seat in the Senate in the 2014 midterm elections. Zinke was also an early supporter of Donald Trump.
Zinke’s appointment came as a surprise to some. News outlets reported last week that Trump was expected to tap Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the chair of the House Republican Conference, for the position.
McMorris Rodgers, the fourth-highest ranking House Republican, posted a message on Facebook late Tuesday saying it was an honor to spend time with the president-elect.
“I’m energized more than ever to continue leading in Congress as we think big, reimagine this government, and put people back at the center of it,” Rodgers wrote.