Billings Gazette: Sources: Zinke is Trump’s pick for Interior secretary

President-elect Donald Trump has asked Montana’s lone congressman, Ryan Zinke, to be secretary of the Interior, according to sources close to Zinke.

Zinke met with Trump in New York City on Monday. He was reportedly in the mix for one of a handful of Cabinet positions that include the departments of the Interior and Veterans Affairs. 

Zinke, a Republican, was flying back to Whitefish on Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. 

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., was meeting with The Gazette when the news broke.

“The Interior is all about public lands. It’s about wildlife and national parks. This is very, very important,” Daines said. “I’m very pleased to see that it’s a westerner and even more pleased to see that it’s a Montanan. I gave strong opinion to the Trump administration, the transition team, that this needs to be a westerner. And by westerner, that doesn’t mean Midwest. I’m talking about the West, someone who understands our way of life, understands the importance of our public lands.” 

Daines made his preferences known to Donald Trump Jr. during a Montana hunting trip a few weeks ago. 

With 25 million acres in Montana, the federal government is the biggest landowner in the state. Montana includes Glacier National Park, part of Yellowstone National Park and seven Indian reservations. 

Federal land plays a key role in the state’s biggest industries: mining, ranching and tourism. As a federal land manager, the Department of the Interior plays a key role in each of those federal interests. 

On Monday, the Trump transition team communications director, Jason Miller, described Zinke as an early Trump supporter and mentioned the congressman’s 22 years as a Navy SEAL and experience as a former state legislator. 

“Congressman Zinke is a strong advocate for American energy independence. And he supports an all-encompassing energy policy that includes renewables, fossil fuels and alternative energy,” Miller said. “Additionally, Congressman Zinke believes we need to find a way to cut through bureaucracy to ensure our nation’s parks, forests, and other public areas are properly maintained and used effectively.” 

Zinke and his wife, Lola, were early Trump supporters. Zinke endorsed Trump in May and was among a dozen Montana delegates the Trump campaign endorsed for the Republican National Convention.  

Zinke introduced Trump at a May campaign rally in Billings, but it was Lola Zinke who was identified by Trump as an early supporter.

Zinke is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee who was just re-elected to his second term. Govtrack, a federal legislative watchdog, reports that 28 percent of Zinke’s bills concern natural resources or public lands, second only to bills concerning the U.S. Armed Forces or national security. Energy and Native American legislation were third and fourth.

Zinke’s legislation has focused extensively on Department of the Interior issues, namely the development of coal, oil and gas on public land. He has championed the sovereignty of tribal governments, particularly concerning natural resource development. 

“He would be good, not only on behalf of Montanans, but also Indian Country,” said Darrin Old Coyote, former chairman of the Crow Tribe. “He comes from a state that has an abundance of natural resources, whether it’s fish or coal, and who knows, maybe it will be easy to pitch for Montana.” 

In November, Zinke carried the Blackfeet Water Rights Settlement Act through the House of Representatives. The bill helps establish water rights on the Blackfeet Reservation and surrounding territory.

Zinke also carried a bill extending federal recognition to the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana. 

David Allen, CEO of the Montana-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation said his organization has been quietly lobbying for Zinke’s appointment since late November.

“We have through back channels been supporting Congressman Zinke for three weeks and we kind of thought it was walking away,” Allen said. As recently as Dec. 9, the national media was reporting that Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, R-Wash., was Trump’s pick for secretary of the Interior. 

But then Zinke was called to Trump Tower in New York for a meeting Monday. Things were looking up for Allen. 

“I think Congressman Zinke works for Montana because we need somebody, we believe, with more of the Western outdoors and Western wildlife beliefs in that position,” Allen said. “We’re excited about it. We think the congressman has been very strong on forest issues. He is an elk hunter, himself. And we feel very strongly he will protect public lands.” 

In the 2016 elections, Zinke was accused by Democratic challenger Denise Juneau of supporting the privatization of public lands, but when fact checked by an independent watchdog, the allegation proved to be false.

The congressman recently said he was considering challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in 2018. By accepting President-elect Trump’s offer, Zinke would put the Montana GOP in search mode for a 2018 Senate candidate. 

Daines said there was time to find another challenger to Tester. 

But Zinke won his race against Juneau, a Democrat twice elected Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction.

If Zinke becomes Interior secretary, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock would appoint to the U.S. House an interim replacement chosen from a list of three nominees selected by the Republican Party.

After that, a special election open to candidates from all parties would occur within 85 to 100 days of Zinke’s departure.