Posted: Tuesday, December 13, 2016 8:40 pm
By SAM WILSON
A Whitefish native and Montana’s lone U.S. Congressman, Republican Ryan Zinke has been tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to join the next administration’s Cabinet as Secretary of the Interior.
Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift confirmed the news after it broke Tuesday afternoon but did not indicate whether the congressman would accept the position. Television news outlet CNN later reported that Zinke had accepted the nomination.
Zinke did not immediately respond to phone calls Tuesday.
Zinke met with the president-elect at Trump Tower in New York City on Monday. Swift says the two talked for about a half-hour and had a wide-ranging discussion about American Indian affairs, land use and land ownership.
Last month, Zinke won re-election to a second term in Congress by a wide margin over Montana’s outgoing Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau.
He will still face confirmation by the U.S. Senate before he can take office as the new interior secretary. If confirmed, the former Navy SEAL Team Six commander would be in charge of a department that administers the majority of federally owned public lands in the country.
Zinke would enforce and in part set policies for the National Park Service, the bureaus of Land Management and Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and several other natural resource management agencies.
Former REI chief executive and Mobil Oil engineer Sally Jewell has served as interior secretary for the Obama Administration since April of 2013.
AFTER NEWS of Trump’s latest selection broke Tuesday, environmental groups quickly issued statements offering a blend of condemnation and cautious optimism for Zinke’s appointment.
The Montana Wilderness Association stated that the Whitefish Republican has a “checkered record when it comes to public lands” but the group was encouraged by his votes opposing the transfer of federal public lands to the states.
“Should he be appointed secretary of Interior, we expect Rep. Ryan Zinke to carry Montana’s values into that role,” the organization’s executive director Brian Sybert said in a statement.
The Western Values Project criticized Zinke’s ties to oil companies and his support for drilling on federal land, while Backcountry Hunters and Anglers praised him as “a potential ally of sportsmen and other outdoor recreationists.”
Zinke’s fellow Republican among the Treasure State’s congressional delegation, Sen. Steve Daines, issued a statement saying he “couldn’t think of a better fit for Secretary of the Interior.”
He praised the congressman’s military background and connections to the American West.
A Zinke-led Department of the Interior would also wield significant power over whether two issues of importance to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
Federal passage of the tribes’ water compact requires the secretary of the Interior’s approval before it can advance through the House of Representatives. Zinke would also be able to weigh in on the proposed removal of the National Bison Range from the National Wildlife Refuge System.
The tribes have long sought the return of the lands within the bison range to the Flathead Indian Reservation, and earlier this year unveiled proposed legislation to do so.
Zinke has previously said he was still weighing both issues as a Congressman, and has not explicitly indicated support for or opposition to either measure.
In a statement Tuesday night, CSKT spokesman Robert McDonald congratulated Zinke and noted his efforts to secure ratification of the water compact for the Blackfeet Nation.
“His personal focus on local control and less Washington bureaucracy is consistent with tribal self-governance and we look forward to working with him on common goals,” the statement read.
The Blackfeet’s chairman, Harry Barnes, similarly struck a congratulatory tone in a statement Tuesday.
“Rep. Zinke has worked steadfast on the Blackfeet water compact ... The Blackfeet and other Montana tribes will have an ear in the Department of the Interior ...” Barnes’ statement read.
DURING THE presidential election campaign, Zinke emerged as an early supporter of Trump, appearing with him at a campaign stop in Billings earlier this year and reaffirming his support repeatedly, despite occasionally criticizing Trump’s personal style.
In interviews with the Daily Inter Lake, Zinke called Trump a “fundamentally flawed” and “un-defendable” candidate, but cast him as preferable to the New York businessman’s general election opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Zinke attracted attention in the 2014 campaign after the Bigfork Eagle quoted him calling Clinton “the antichrist” during a fundraising event.
“Do I really believe that she is the antichrist? That answer would be ‘no,’” Zinke said in a later interview with The Associated Press. “But I do get a little emotional about Benghazi, and I like the rest of America want answers.”
After graduating from Whitefish High School, Zinke enlisted the U.S. Navy, becoming a highly decorated 23-year veteran and a SEAL Team Six Commander.
Following his discharge, Zinke served one term in the Montana Senate, where he chaired the Education Committee and focused on advancing technology in the classroom, rural access to education and local control over schools.
In 2014 he won election to the House of Representatives, when he became the first Flathead County native to serve in Congress.
As a Congressman, Zinke sat on the House Natural Resources and Armed Services committees, and frequently worked on land management, homeland security and immigration issues.
In an interview with the Associated Press after his re-election last month, Zinke indicated he was considering a challenge to Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who has said he plans to run again in 2018.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.