Energy & Environment

Zinke’s dismal record on public lands makes him unfit for Interior

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With climate-denier Scott Pruitt slated to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and oil baron Rex Tillerson expected as secretary of state, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) appears at first glance as a less-dangerous pick for secretary of the Interior, but looking reasonable is easy with the bar set as low as it is for Donald Trump’s nominees.

Zinke, whose nomination was advanced Tuesday by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — took every chance he could in his two years in Congress to vote against endangered species — and for fossil fuel development and other extractive industries on public lands.

To be clear, he voted against the Endangered Species Act, a key law the Interior secretary is sworn to implement, in 21 out of 21 possible votes.

{mosads}It begs the question, if Rep. Zinke couldn’t find a single time to break party ranks and vote to protect endangered species, what will he do when he is suddenly tasked with the survival of more than 1,500 endangered species across the country? Will he do right by them, or will he do what the oil and gas industry — which has given him more than $300,000 during his political career—wants him to do, which is look the other way while they recklessly destroy public lands and kill endangered species in their thirst for greater quarterly profits?

Unlike Rep. Zinke, the overwhelming majority of Americans treasure their public lands and natural heritage. The prospect of Zinke as secretary of the Interior is particularly daunting for conservationists like me who have dedicated our lives to preserving endangered species and their dwindling habitats across the country. One can only imagine what the career staff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must be thinking as they look at the prospect of being led by someone so antithetically opposed to their mission.

The incoming Interior secretary will decide the fate of several high-profile Obama administration environmental decisions, including whether to maintain a moratorium on new federal coal leases put in place by President Obama and whether to continue implementing protections of imperiled species like the greater sage grouse. With the cash he’s been handed by fossil fuel interests, it seems pretty easy to predict how Zinke will act.   

If the money trail is not compelling enough, the bills he has introduced in the House of Representatives speak volumes about his priorities.

Zinke introduced legislation to overturn the aforementioned moratorium on coal leasing.  He voted in favor of the cynically named Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015, a duplicitous scheme to turn control of public land over to industry-dominated panels under the guise of restoring state management. This dangerous bill was widely opposed by conservationists, sportsmen, businesses and timber companies for dispensing with environmental laws and public involvement to ramp up unsustainable logging levels.

Zinke sponsored a bill known as Litigation Relief for Forest Management, which would have skirted requirements to ensure logging projects on public lands do not unduly harm endangered species. He co-sponsored the “Greater Sage Grouse Protection and Recovery Act of 2016,” which would have delayed protection of the bird as an endangered species until 2026. And he was a co-sponsor of the Mexican Wolf Transparency and Accountability Act, which would have removed endangered species protections for the Mexican gray wolves. Thankfully he was ineffective enough that none of these damaging bills became law.  

Given his deplorable record, the Senate should reject Zinke’s nomination as the top public lands official in the country. He is clearly in the pocket of the oil and gas industry and cannot be trusted to make decisions in the best interest of the American people, who place immense value on wildlife and wild places.

Brett Hartl is government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Donald Trump Environmental Protection Agency Ryan Zinke Scott Pruitt Trump administration

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