The one Trump pick leaving greens hopeful

The one Trump pick leaving greens hopeful
© Greg Nash

Conservation advocates see a rare bright spot in the Trump administration with the confirmation of Ryan Zinke as Interior secretary.

Amid historic opposition by Democrats and liberal groups to President Trump’s Cabinet picks – many of whom have close ties to the oil and natural gas industry – Zinke’s record on conservation is giving some greens hope that they have a strong ally in the executive branch.

“Throughout his career, Secretary Zinke has demonstrated a commitment to making conservation a top priority of his service. It takes courage to stand up to the party on public lands,” said Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

“There’s going to be pressure on him for additional energy development, there’s going to be challenges in some of the regulatory programs,” he continued. “But it’s someone who we can talk to.”

Zinke frames himself as a Republican conservationist in the model of President Theodore Roosevelt, an early supporter of national parks and outdoor recreation who protected large swaths of land in the West.

That’s good news to conservation advocates, who have generally opposed GOP policies in recent years.

Zinke, who was Montana’s sole congressman from 2015 until his confirmation as Interior secretary on Wednesday, set himself apart from most of his party through his strong support for keeping federal lands under federal ownership, preserving land protections, funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund and similar policies.

He went so far as to step down from the GOP’s platform committee last year over the panel’s endorsement of transferring federal lands to states. That helped him draw the support of more than a dozen Democrats in the Senate, at a time when many Trump nominees saw their confirmation votes be nearly along party lines.

Now Zinke, a former Navy SEAL and long-time hunter, is taking those conservation credentials to Interior, which controls about one-fifth of the nation’s land. Its responsibilities also include wildlife conservation, American-Indian relations, offshore drilling and geology.

“Mr. Zinke was definitely the best choice out of who had been put forward,” said Land Tawney, president of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA).

Tawney contrasted Zinke with Rep. Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersCharities push GOP for tax reform change Trump, GOP lawmakers struggle with messaging Paul Ryan: ‘Beautiful day’ to catch up with Bono MORE (R-Wash.), who had been the rumored frontrunner before Zinke secured the job.

“She’s been on the record wanting to sell public lands,” Tawney said. “Mr. Zinke I think separated himself from the other candidates on that. Keeping public lands in public hands is vitally important.”

Tawney and his group played a role in Trump’s choice of Zinke. Trump’s son Donald Jr. is an avid hunter and lifetime member of BHA, and reportedly pressed his father on the issue when the group sounded alarm bells over McMorris Rodgers.

Democratic senators who crossed the aisle to vote for Zinke have similar reasons for supporting him.

“We’re going to fight about a number of things, but not having someone in the secretary of Interior’s position who is actively trying to divest of our public lands, which I believe are one of the greatest birthrights of being an American citizen, is something that I value,” said Sen. Martin HeinrichMartin HeinrichNew legislation tells fourth graders to take a hike Dems push for more action on power grid cybersecurity The Memo: Five takeaways from Jeff Sessions’s testimony MORE (D-N.M.).

“He really sees himself in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt,” said Sen. Ron WydenRon WydenTrump and GOP wise to keep tax reform and infrastructure separate Dem senator questions Justice Department on warrantless surveillance FCC says it cannot provide more proof of claimed cyberattack MORE (D-Ore.). “My sense is — I’ve had a number of conversations with him — that he understands what the challenge is.”

Zinke, who rode a horse to his first day of work Thursday in Washington, D.C., has entered office voicing his support for conservation.

He issued an order on his first day to seek to improve access to federal land, and he told employees and reporters that he plans to fight White House attempts to slash the department’s budget.

Zinke has his detractors in the conservation community, and even his supporters say that they’re willing to battle with him in areas like increasing fossil fuel production on federal land and endangered species.

“What troubles us is that in his short period of one congressional term, he voted for a wide range of anti-wildlife bills,” said Bob Dreher, senior vice president for conservation at Defenders of Wildlife, which opposed his nomination but has expressed a desire to work with the new secretary closely.

“We’re worried about how we get him to really live the full mantle of stewardship that he’s now taking on,” Dreher said.

Interior is a major piece of Trump’s agenda to reverse former President Barack ObamaBarack ObamaConway: Trump doesn't think he's lying on voter fraud, wiretap claims Trump's forgotten man and woman — still forgotten Jeb Bush calls out Republicans silent on Trump's Russia probe MORE’s environmental policies and increase fossil fuel production.

Both Trump and Zinke want to remove barriers to coal, oil and natural gas production, where appropriate, on federal land. They want to increase offshore drilling and end Obama’s moratorium on new coal federal mining leases.

“Unlike his boss, Ryan Zinke can string a coherent sentence together, but don’t be fooled,” Diana Best, climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace, said in a statement.

“As Interior secretary, Zinke will sell out the American people for corporate interests in no time, giving away more public lands to private development, undermining efforts to modernize the federal leasing program, and compromising the Interior’s charter to manage lands to serve the interests of all Americans.”

But the groups that have been more supportive of Zinke are betting that he will be willing to work with them, even when they disagree.

“We’ll support him on some things and applaud, and on some things, we’ll hold him accountable,” Tawney said.