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Interior Nominee Familiar With Issues, But Worries Environmentalists


There's a confirmation hearing tomorrow for Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke. He's President-elect Trump's pick for interior secretary. The U.S. Department of the Interior is the guardian of America's national parks, but that's only a tiny part of his portfolio. It oversees nearly one-fifth of all the land in the United States. That means it plays a huge role in energy development.

As Montana Public Radio's Eric Whitney reports, Zinke is a friend of the fossil fuel industry who might also work to protect some undeveloped lands.

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: The interior secretary can say yes or no to a lot of coal mines, oil and natural gas fields and renewable energy projects, too. Congressman Ryan Zinke hasn't granted any interviews since being appointed to lead Interior, but his views on fossil fuels are well-known. Here he is at a candidates debate last October.


RYAN ZINKE: I don't agree with keep it in the ground. We can do it better. We can do it safer. Put money into research. That's where we should be putting our investment - to make our coal, our oil, our fossil fuels - all of the above - more efficient, cleaner and better over time.

WHITNEY: In his two House campaigns, Zinke has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from fossil fuel development interests. That and his voting record has environmentalists very concerned.

DREW CAPUTO: He has cast dozens of environmental votes, and the overwhelming majority of them are bad for the environment.

WHITNEY: Drew Caputo is vice president of litigation at Earthjustice, the nonprofit law firm that sues on behalf of the Sierra Club and other green groups. He points to Zinke's votes for fracking and against new national monuments and one that Caputo says would weaken the Endangered Species Act. But, he says...

CAPUTO: There are pieces of his record that give hope for the environment.

WHITNEY: A big one is Zinke resigning his seat as a delegate to the Republican National Convention last year because the party platform calls for transferring ownership of federal lands to the States. That's a huge issue out West, where 50 percent or more of some states is owned by the federal government. Many conservatives think states could manage that land better and be more friendly to logging, mining and energy development.

But there's also a lot of bipartisan opposition to states taking over federal lands. Earthjustice's Drew Caputo hopes Zinke will stand up for federal land protection and show some independence.

CAPUTO: Which is a very valuable thing in a Republican Party that has become more and more hostile to the environment.

WHITNEY: Zinke cultivates an image that didn't make him an obvious choice for interior. He's a proud retired commander in the Navy SEALs and frequently appears on Fox News to talk about defense issues. His just-published autobiography, "American Commander," is heavy on leadership and national security but light on natural resource policy.

But the Montana native is familiar with Interior Department issues. For instance, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is part of Interior, and several Montana tribal leaders are praising his nomination. Vernon Finley is chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

VERNON FINLEY: Congressman Zinke's record of willingness to work with tribes shows that he's someone who the tribes would be able to work with.

WHITNEY: Montana tribal leaders say they feel like Zinke listens to their concerns. He's gone to bat for Indian water rights and supports reversing oil and gas leases previously issued by the Interior Department near Glacier National Park on land the Blackfeet Tribe considers sacred. Zinke is popular with congressional Republicans and is expected to be confirmed easily. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Missoula, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRELANE SONG, "TO THE EAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.