The tumultuous Trump transition took another turn late Tuesday, as reports from many media outlets said he has picked Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), a freshman who won a second House term in November’s election, to be Secretary of Interior. Many of the same media sources late last week said Trump would pick Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the highest ranking Republican in the House, for the job.
Zinke is a surprising choice, as he has served only one term and was being groomed by Montana Republican operatives to take on Democratic Sen. John Tester in the 2018 election. Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, has little in his Washington record, but he has been a strong advocate of public lands, which puts him at odds with many Western Republicans, where the “sagebrush rebellion” against federal land management is a strong force.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Zinke is politically ambitious. He pondered a run for Speaker of the House after he had only been in Congress for 10 months. He sits on the House Natural Resources Committee, which has broad jurisdiction over the Interior Department.
The Washington Post reported, “A lifelong hunter and fisherman, the 55-year-old Zinke has defended public access to federal lands even though he frequently votes against environmentalists. This summer, he quit his post as a member of the GOP platform-writing committee after the group included language that would have transferred federal land ownership to the states.” The newspaper observed that Trump has also opposed transfer of federal lands to the states or private parties, but the provision made it into the party’s official political platform.
Interior is also responsible for energy and resource development on those federal lands, which make up a large portion of the Western landscape in the U.S. The New York Times observed, “As head of the agency that oversees energy exploration on the nation’s public lands and waters, Mr. Zinke would be charged with carrying out the aggressive pro-drilling agenda championed by Mr. Trump on the campaign trail.”
While Zinke has low ratings from Washington-based environmental groups, he has broken with GOP environmental orthodoxy from time-to-time, winning support from local groups. He opposed a move by Rep. Don Young, Alaska’s hard-right congressman, to allow states to buy up to 2 million acres of U.S. Forest Service land to boost timber production. As the Post reported, he’s also worked for full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which outdoors groups strongly support.
Land Tawney of the Montana-based Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, defended Zinke in the Post as “a straight shooter” and described him as a “Theodore Roosevelt Republican.” Tawney said, “Hunting and fishing isn’t something we do in Montana, it’s a way of life.”
But the Washington-based League of Conservation Voters blasted Zinke in what has become an almost knee-jerk reaction to Trump’s energy and environmental nominees, saying that Zinke “is a climate denier who supports drilling in the Arctic and continuing outrageous subsidies for dirty energy development and public lands—positions that align with the oil and gas companies that have spent nearly $350,000 on his campaigns.”
Zinke played football at the University of Oregon, where he was an all-PAC 10 lineman and earned a degree in geology. He also earned MBA and M.S. degrees. He was a Navy SEAL from 1986 to 2008, retiring with the rank of Commander. He led missions into Iraq, earning two Bronze Star medals for meritorious service in a combat zone.
Zinke was elected to the Montana Senate in 2008, serving until 2011. He won election to the U.S. House in 2014, and won reelection in November with 56% of the vote.
—Kennedy Maize is a frequent POWER contributor.