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Former SEAL Zinke tapped to lead Interior Department

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Rep. Ryan Zinke, right, R-Mont., arrived in Trump Tower, in New York, Monday.

BILLINGS, Mont. >> Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana made no secret of his ambitions to join a Donald Trump Cabinet, and yet his nomination as interior secretary is in some ways an unlikely fit for the retired U.S. Navy SEAL.

Zinke, 55, was an early supporter of the president-elect and publicly expressed his interest in a Cabinet post when Trump visited Montana in May.

Like other Western states, Montana’s wide-open, rugged landscape has a huge federal presence. The Interior Department and other U.S. agencies control almost a third of its land and even more of the underground “mineral estate” that holds vast amounts of coal, oil and natural gas.

As with several other Trump Cabinet nominees, Zinke has advocated for increased energy drilling and mining on those lands and expressed skepticism about the urgency of climate change.

The Republican lawmaker also has been a vocal supporter of keeping public lands in the government’s hands. That’s a central political issue in Montana, where hunting and fishing access is considered sacrosanct.

The president-elect’s son Donald Jr. is an avid hunter and was in Montana on a hunting trip last month. That may have given Zinke an advantage over another lawmaker Trump was said to have considered for the Interior post, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash. She wrote on Facebook Tuesday that it had been an “honor” to be invited to meet with Trump.

Zinke met Monday with Trump in New York, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. A person close to Zinke confirmed the Tuesday offer.

He hadn’t yet accepted when he left Tuesday for his home in the mountain town of Whitefish, Montana, according to two of those people. All three spoke on condition of on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the transition process publicly.

Energy development, land management and hunting fall under the Interior Department’s jurisdiction. However, those were second-tier issues for Zinke during his successful re-election campaign this fall against Democrat Denise Juneau.

In interviews with The Associated Press during that campaign, Zinke repeatedly identified his top priorities as national security, more thorough vetting of refugees to screen out terrorists, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and improving the U.S. economy.

Only after listing those did he list his desire to increase coal mining and oil and gas exploration, protect public lands and provide more resources for American Indian tribes, another Interior responsibility.

News of his selection was welcomed by Montana’s Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and at least one conservation group, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. The president of the Missoula, Montana-based hunting group, Land Tawney, called Zinke a “potential ally” in the effort to balance energy development with preservation.

“There are places too important for drilling, and in other places we can do phased development. Mr. Zinke understands that,” Tawney said.

Other groups slammed the selection. The Northern Plains Resource Council accused Zinke of “shortchanging the public” with his opposition to pending Obama administration moves to reform the federal energy leasing program.

Zinke spent 23 years as a Navy SEAL, serving in Iraq, Kosovo and elsewhere. He was awarded two Bronze Stars for combat missions in Iraq. He currently serves on the House Natural Resources and Armed Services committees and describes himself as “a steadfast advocate for Montana veterans and military personnel and families.”

He made an unsuccessful 2012 run for Montana lieutenant governor before shifting his ambitions to Congress when former Rep. Denny Rehberg decided to take on Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat. Zinke has been considering his own challenge to Tester in 2018.

Zinke has raised doubts about climate change as “unsettled science.” But he’s also said that “something’s going on” with the climate and that an energy strategy that includes renewable sources such as wind and solar would be prudent.

Montana boasts the largest coal reserves in the nation. Zinke has warned environmentalists and the Obama administration that to take coal out of the energy mix would be “a disaster.”

“I don’t agree with keeping it in the ground,” he said in a debate before his re-election.

Democrats have attempted to label Zinke as a radical who would sell off federal lands to private interests or transfer them to state control. Zinke has adamantly denied the charge, which was based on a pledge he’d signed years earlier.

Before being elected to Congress, Zinke served in the Montana Senate, where he chaired the Education Committee. He graduated from the University of Oregon, where he played football and earned a degree in geology. He has master’s degrees in business finance and global leadership from the University of San Diego.

Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Ken Thomas and Matthew Daly in Washington and Matt Volz in Butte, Montana, contributed to this report.

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  • Too many previous Interior secretaries were political hacks, including Jewell and Inouye’s buddy, Salazar. Note keeping public lands in government hands. Big mistake in Hawaii putting public lands in state hands, which is the same thing as putting them in the hands of the ali’i trusts and the insiders who play the Hawaii one hand washing the other game to the detriment of the public. We have no natural resources so the state public land game is purely political. Putting the state in charge of native Hawaiian trust land led us to the SIC Al Hee syndrome, which is to say, the Senator I political insider skim rip off syndrome.

  • Montana has only one member of Congress in the House. Rep. Zinke has served two terms. There is a band of Indians, known as the “Little Shell”, who are recognized as a tribe by the State of Montana. Rep. Zinke has pushed hard to pass a bill in Congress to give federal recognition to the Little Shell, and he has also co-sponsored a bill to grant federal recognition to seven Indian groups including several in Virginia. Zinke’s activism on pushing a bill for federal recognition for the Little Shell group in his own state seems similar to activism by Hawaii’s Inouye/Abercrombie to get fed rec for ethnic Hawaiians.

    Does this mean that Zinke, as Secretary of Interior, will automatically be enthusiastic to help a Hawaiian tribe get federal recognition? Not necessarily. It only means that Zinke did what he was expected to do, seeking federal handouts for a group of citizens of his own state, including “logrolling” to combine his efforts with members of Congress from another state. As Secretary of Interior for the entire nation, and with a record of fiscal and political conservatism, I’m hopeful Zinke will oppose fed rec for a Hawaiian tribe. The two main arguments that will be made to him are (1) ethnic Hawaiians are nothing like the Little Shell or any genuine Indian tribe and could never meet the normal requirements for an Indian group to get fed rec; and (2) A Hawaiian tribe would be HUGE and would grab the lions’ share of money away from the small genuine tribes in the competition for federal money from a budget that will be under pressure to cut back.

    • The Dem party’s push for converting the state’s scheme to a federal one is doomed. The SIC skim shows what happens when Hawaii’s dems run the show. Hawaiians, as per Rice, are 1 – a racial group and 2 – a COLONIAL construct. There is no federal law that can serve to convert a colonial construct into a tribe or something like a tribe. The issue is who owns the public lands, not whether or not the state morphing into a tribe can continue to control them to its own self inurement. The Charity Fraud melt down intersects with the SIC/Ali’i trust sames of our Dem bosses.

      • IRT Mythman, the State of Hawaii is the trustee of the former Crown and Government Lands merged by law signed by Kamehameha V in 1864 and transferred through the Constitutions of the Kingdom, Republic, Territory, and now with the State of Hawaii. All confirmed by Federal Court decisions up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

        • Hawaii law became irrelevant when the islands became a federal state included in the Union. The Indian Commerce clause rules over Hawaiian law, especially when the group being favored by it is no longer Hawaiian but rather is an Asian derived settler group.

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