Great Falls Tribune: Zinke vote on federal land comes under fire

HELENA — Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., came under criticism on Wednesday for being among 233 House members who voted Tuesday to change how Congress determines the cost of transferring federal land to states, a move that reportedly would make it easier for Congress to cede federal control of public land.

Zinke, of Whitefish, is President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to be secretary of the Interior.

Many Republicans favor handing over large areas of federal land to state and local authorities, saying they will be more responsive to the concerns of local residents, the Washington Post reported. There were 190 votes opposed in the vote, which occurred on the first day of the congressional session. The provision was part of a larger House rules package.

Some Montana officials objected to the proposal.

“This is an absolute affront to Montana’s way of life and to the millions of Americans who hike, hunt, fish, and camp on public lands,” Brian Sybert, executive director of Montana Wilderness Association, said via email. “These lands belong to all Americans. They’re what make America so great. It’s unimaginable that some in Congress would want to simply give these lands away.

“It’s especially troubling that Rep. Zinke, a self-proclaimed Roosevelt conservationist and possibly our next Interior secretary, voted for this measure, because this is a major attack on Roosevelt’s legacy.”

Zinke’s spokeswoman, Heather Swift, said his position on public land has not changed.

“I have always been a strong supporter of public lands, and have voted against the transfer or sale of public lands,” he has said in the past. “My position is known and well established.”

Zinke advocates greater use of public land for energy production such as oil and natural gas.

He has prioritized development of oil, gas and other resources on public land and has advocated for state control of energy development on federal land, a stance that some environmental groups say threatens national parks.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., also criticized the House vote, calling it an “underhanded assault on Montana’s outdoor economy, our hunting heritage, and our way of life.”

He said Congress should be safeguarding public land, “not clearing the way to auction them off to the highest bidder. I ask all those who care about our public lands to join me in demanding more public access, not more attacks on our public lands, from their representatives in the House.”

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., criticized the rule change.

“I continue to strongly oppose the transfer of federal lands to the states while fighting to improve the management of those lands,” he said.

The Montana Democratic Party criticized Zinke’s vote.

“You’d think that the Congressman would be on his best behavior going into a job interview, but instead he’s taking steps to once again jeopardize the future of Montana’s outdoor economy,” said Nancy Keenan, executive director. “Montana hunters and anglers won’t forget this vote and we will continue to hold Congressman Zinke accountable as he asks for the nation’s trust in serving as secretary of the Interior.”

Criticism also came from Business for Montana’s Outdoors,

“The U.S. House just voted to make it easier to give away one of Montana’s prized business assets. We are sounding the alarm that this legislation will directly impact Montana businesses because it threatens our public lands,” said Marne Hayes, executive director of Business for Montana’s Outdoors.

She said she hoped that Zinke in his new role as Interior secretary, will stand firm against future threats to Montana jobs and “our outdoor way of life.”

The group is a statewide, bipartisan coalition of more than 130 businesses advocating on behalf of public land. The group says it represents nearly 3,600 jobs.

House Natural Resources Committee spokeswoman Molly Block told the Post in a prepared statement that “in many cases federal lands create a significant burden for the surrounding communities,” because they cannot be taxed and can be “in disrepair.”

She said allowing communities to manage and use these lands will generate not only state and local income tax, but also federal income tax revenues. And it will reduce the need for some federally supported payments.

“Unfortunately, current budget practices do not fully recognize these benefits, making it very difficult for non-controversial land transfers between governmental entities for public use and other reasons to happen,” Block stated.

Some Democrats argue that these lands should be managed on behalf of all Americans, not just those living nearby, and warn that cash-strapped state and local officials might sell these parcels to developers, the Post reported.

Congressional Budget Office accounting rules now stipulate that any transfer of federal land that generates revenue for the U.S. Treasury — whether through energy extraction, logging, grazing or other activities — has a cost, the Post reported. If lawmakers wanted to give such land to a state, local government or tribe, they would have to account for that loss in expected cash flow.

Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, authored language in the new rules package that would overturn that requirement, the Post reported, saying any such transfers “shall not be considered as providing new budget authority, decreasing revenues, increasing mandatory spending, or increasing outlays.”