U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke (R-MT) has been confirmed as Secretary of the Interior Department.
Minutes after his confirmation, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Zinke resigned from his House seat. His resignation went straight to Montana Governor Steve Bullock (D), who must now schedule a special election to fill Zinke’s seat in the next 85-100 days.
According to the Chronicle, Zinke was approved by a vote of 68-31, with 16 Democrats and one independent joining the 52 Republican senators.
Zinke is the highest-ranking Montanan to serve in a presidential cabinet and is also the first Navy SEAL appointed to a cabinet post. He was first named as the Trump Administration’s Interior pick in mid-December. In a statement confirming his appointment, Zinke said he would “faithfully uphold Teddy Roosevelt’s belief that our treasured public lands are ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.’” Zinke also listed addressing the National Park System’s $12 billion maintenance backlog, tribal sovereignty, and “responsible” resource development among his priorities as Secretary.
Zinke was one of the first U.S. Representatives to back Trump. In July 2016, Zinke spoke at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Later in the year, he handily won another term in the House against Democratic challenger Denise Juneau, Montana’s former Superintendent of Public Instruction. If elected, she would have been the first Native American woman to serve in Congress.
Although Zinke touted his sportsman bona fides and attracted praise from both of Montana’s Senators on his stance for public lands, he drew criticism from outdoor and environmental groups when he voted on a House package that included a rule to ease the transfer of federal lands to states. The move surprised his backers, as Zinke had previously been a staunch opponent to land transfers—going so far as to drop out of the RNC’s platform committee over their commitment to land transfer.
Several U.S. Senators, during his confirmation vote, questioned Zinke’s commitment to public lands in light of that House vote, according to the Chronicle:
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Zinke at Interior should “concern every lover of our great and grand national parks.”
Dismissing the Republican’s claim to be like the late President Teddy Roosevelt, Schumer said, “You can’t be a Roosevelt conservationist if you sell off public lands.”
Countering the Democrat, Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines said Zinke “will be a strong advocate for our public lands.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she is not convinced that Zinke will be able to “stand up” to Trump and prevent oil, gas and mining companies from unduly exploiting public lands.
Cantwell also said Zinke appears willing to support transfer of some federal lands to states, citing his vote for the GOP-sponsored rules package. She worries that Zinke may weaken or repeal recent designations by President Barack Obama of national monuments, including Utah’s Bears Ears monument.
Senate Energy Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska called Zinke an excellent choice, noting that the fifth-generation Montanan is an avid hunter, fisherman and skier.
“He was born in the West. He lives in the West. He understands it, he understands its people,” Murkowski said.
Zinke also has “firsthand experience in trying to solve” problems faced by the Interior Department and has “shown he understands the need for the department to be a partner of Alaska and our Western states,” Murkowski said.
U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), dismayed by Zinke’s apparent turnaround, met with him in January for assurance that, as Interior Secretary, he would stand by his promise to safeguard public land access and also uphold measures like the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Tester said he was satisfied with Zinke’s answer at their meeting; he later voted to confirm Zinke as Interior Secretary.
Since January, Zinke has attracted further scrutiny over his interest in a “multi-use” land policy that would weigh outdoor recreation, logging, mining, and drilling equally.
He also drew criticism for his stance toward Bears Ears National Monument. Several Utah Representatives and Senators, including Orrin Hatch (R-UT), have pleaded with Zinke to advocate limiting or reversing the designation of Bears Ears.
Bears Ears is at the heart of a battle between the state of Utah and the outdoor recreation industry, part of the larger debate over the value of public lands. Earlier this month, the organizers of Outdoor Retailer announced they would no longer host their twice-a-year trade show in Utah and would not consider the state for future events. The event draws 50,000 people on average and contributes $45 million to the state and local economy. Neighboring states, including Montana and Colorado, are actively campaigning to become Outdoor Retailer’s new home. Indeed, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and both of the state’s U.S. Senators penned a letter to the organizers, highlighting their state’s commitment to public lands and the outdoor recreation industry.
Finally, during his confirmation hearing, Zinke drew praise and criticism for his stance on climate change. Although he averred it was happening (citing a recent experience in Glacier National Park watching glaciers recede “during lunch”) and that human activity is a major contributor, he added he believes “there’s debate in what that [human] influence is.”
As mentioned, Zinke’s resignation means a special election for Montana, with each party surveying a crowded field of viable candidates. There’s another element of electoral angst that’s emerged recently: the question of whether to conduct the election via mail. State senator Steve Fitzpatrick (R-Great Falls) recently introduced legislation that would mandate an all-mail ballot. According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the bill passed a vote in the Senate.
Montana GOP Chairman and state senator Jeff Essmann recently sounded the alarm on all-mail ballots, saying they would give Democrats an unfair advantage, citing “their ability to organize large numbers of unpaid college students and members of public employee unions.” Montana Democratic Party executive director Nancy Keenan accused Essmann of fomenting voter suppression.
Essmann is not alone in his criticism. State representative Sharon Stewart-Peregoy (D-Crow Agency) said an all-mail ballot would curtail Native Americans’ ability to vote.
Fitzpatrick shot back at Essmann, saying that Republicans aren’t disadvantaged, citing all-mail ballots conducted in many local government elections.