Trump Said to Tap Former SEAL, Montana Lawmaker for Interior

(Bloomberg) -- President-elect Donald Trump picked Montana Representative Ryan Zinke, a Republican who gets low marks from environmental groups but has bucked his party to protect public land, as his nominee for interior secretary, according to two people familiar with the transition planning.

Zinke was an early supporter of Trump and met with the president-elect Monday at Trump Tower in Manhattan. He’s been offered and has accepted the nomination, according to the people who agreed to discuss internal transition team deliberations only on the condition of anonymity. Heather Swift, Zinke’s communications director, declined to comment.

Zinke, 55,  a former member of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team Six, was awarded two Bronze Stars for missions in Iraq. The first SEAL in the House, he just won a second term representing Montana.

“Ryan Zinke protected us abroad and in combat and I know he will do the same for our treasured public lands as Secretary of the Interior,” Montana Republican Senator Steve Daines said in a statement. “In Congress, I’ve seen Ryan stand up and fight to protect our way of life. As a westerner, Ryan understands the challenges of having the federal government as your largest neighbor and I couldn’t think of a better fit for Secretary of the Interior.”

His campaign website mentions that he grew up "at the gateway to Glacier National Park," and that as a fifth-generation Montanan his "love and appreciation for Montana’s outdoor heritage began early and still continues to grow to this day."

Zinke’s voting record in Congress has gained low ratings from environmental and conservation organizations.

Environmental Concerns

The League of Conservation Voters gave Zinke a 3 percent score in the group’s 100-point National Environmental Scorecard, based on lawmakers’ votes on the organization’s top issues, including energy, climate change, public health, wildlife conservation and spending for environmental programs. The average score in the group’s ratings for all House members in 2015 was 41 percent. 

Zinke’s generally pro-energy stances have been balanced by support for conservation. His campaign website quotes the lawmaker as saying, "I will not tolerate selling our public lands." And in May 2015 he voted against the GOP budget, it says, "because it included vaguely-written language that would allow the sale of public lands."

Zinke voted in the Natural Resources Committee against the State National Forest Management Act of 2015, a bill that he complained would permit up to 2 million acres of public lands owned by the U.S. Forest Service to be transferred to state ownership. 

Opposes Sale

“I’m starting to wonder how many times I have to tell these guys in leadership I’m not going to allow Montana’s public lands to be sold or given away,” Zinke said after the vote, according to his website.

He also resigned as a delegate to the Republican National Committee in protest of a platform plank calling for federal lands to be returned to states.

Zinke would fit well, however, in a Trump cabinet that has a number of climate change skeptics and advocates for expanded U.S. energy production. Zinke, who majored in geology at the University of Oregon, has said that while “evidence strongly suggests” that human activity contributed to global warming, “rising ocean temperatures” and other factors “have a greater influence.” 

He opposes tax subsidies for renewable energy sources such as wind generation, arguing they should compete on their own merits in the marketplace. He supports construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would run through eastern Montana. 

Zinke’s "repeated support for logging, drilling and mining on cherished public lands is out of step with most Americans," Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, said in an e-mail.

Front Line

Trump’s selection would put Zinke on the front line of Trump’s campaign promises to rescind "job-killing" regulations he says are throttling U.S. oil and gas development. Trump has vowed to immediately reverse a temporary ban on the sale of new federally owned coal that was imposed by Obama’s Interior Department in January. The next interior secretary also will face oil industry pressure to open up new coastal areas for drilling, including Arctic and Atlantic waters that were excluded from the Obama administration’s recently released plan for selling offshore leases from 2017 to 2022.

Energy developers have criticized the Interior Department’s handling of endangered species and recent Bureau of Land Management regulations governing oil development on public land, including limits on methane emissions and standards for hydraulic fracturing that have been blocked by a federal court.

The Interior Department has a broad-ranging role overseeing energy development, grazing, recreation and other activities on more than 500 million acres of land -- about a fifth of the U.S. It also regulates energy development on the outer continental shelf, including offshore wind farms and drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Western Politicians

In selecting Zinke, Trump is continuing a tradition of turning to Western politicians to lead the agency whose decisions are deeply felt in that part of the country, home to the majority of U.S. federal lands. Nine of the last 10 confirmed interior secretaries hailed from western states.

Zinke’s Montana roots have put him in the middle of disputes over public lands and policy affecting native Americans. He has worked to get federal recognition for a tribe in Montana and supported making permanent a tax break for coal mined from native American reservations.

He also has supported a permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses revenue from offshore oil and gas development to help states build outdoor recreational facilities and buy new lands and waters for recreation. Hunting and other recreational uses of public land are a vital issue for some residents in his home state of Montana.

"Energy Toolbox"

The Billings Gazette quoted Zinke as saying, “I’m a Montana conservative. I like infrastructure.”

Zinke’s campaign website describes him as supporting "an all-of-the-above energy policy which includes renewables, fossil fuels and alternative energy." It says that he is a strong advocate for reducing the U.S.’s reliance on foreign oil, and believes "we need to use every tool available in our energy toolbox."

He also has been among those warning that many sections of our forests are so poorly tended to that a single lit match can completely wipe out decades of timber growth and habitat preservation.

His 21-year Navy career included a stint as a commander on the elite SEAL Team SIX. When he left the Navy, Zinke returned to his native Montana and embarked on a political career, winning a 2008 election to the state Senate representing a district that includes his northern Montana home of Whitefish. During his four-year tenure, he chaired the chamber’s Education and Cultural Resources Committee.

The Montana legislature is a part-time job, and Zinke went to work as chief executive officer of a consulting firm that promotes technology for the aerospace, oil and gas industries.

Lone Member

When Montana’s lone House member, Steve Daines, decided to run for the Senate instead of seeking re-election, Zinke joined what turned out to be a five-candidate battle for the Republican nomination. He took the nod, with 33 percent of the vote.

In addition to the Natural Resources Committee, Zinke serves on the House Armed Services panel.

While attending the University of Oregon on an athletic scholarship, Zinke played four years for the Oregon Ducks football team. He also holds a Masters in Business Finance and a Masters in Global Leadership from the University of San Diego.

He and his wife, Lolita, have three children, and two grandaughters. He is an author of an autobiography, American Commander, which he wrote with New York Times Bestselling Author of American Sniper, Scott McEwen.