Billings Gazette: Daines meets Zinke with long wishlist for next Interior secretary

Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines is positioned to play a key role in the confirmation of Ryan Zinke to Donald Trump’s presidential cabinet. The two Montanans met Thursday.

Zinke, Montana’s lone congressman, met with Daines to discuss the representative’s nomination to be Interior secretary. Daines is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which will begin Zinke’s confirmation process.

“Ryan has a good balance of protecting public land and conservation, and energy development,” Daines told The Gazette. “I think it’s that balance that’s needed in the secretary of Interior.”

Daines said he expects the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will take up Zinke’s confirmation in the next few weeks, while also considering former Texas Gov. Rick Perry for energy secretary.

Daines met with Perry on Thursday and came away with a positive impression of the Texan who twice visited Montana in 2016 while campaigning for the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Greg Gianforte.

Perry was an all-of-the-above energy governor who saw the development of the fossil fuel and renewable energy projects in his state. Daines said he expects President-elect Trump to ratchet up research in ways to produce energy from coal more cleanly, which should benefit Montana coal mining and coal-fired power generation at Colstrip, he said.

“Texas has all of the above. The contrast that you will see with Secretary Perry versus Secretary Ernest Moniz is you see all of the above from Secretary Perry and you just saw few of the above from the Obama administration. This is good for Montana,” Daines said.

Zinke framed his meeting with Daines as a get-together of two Montanans. His comments, included in a press release issued by Daines, were his first since being nominated by Trump.

“I appreciate Sen. Daines taking the time to sit down and talk about how together we can Make America Great Again,” Zinke said. “As two Montana kids who were at Boys State together in 1979 and who grew up with a personal understanding of our natural resources and public lands, I look forward to working with him in the future in any capacity that allows me to serve Montana.”

During their meeting, Daines said he had several Montana-specific “asks,” which is how lawmakers refer to the requests made to cabinet hopefuls during pre-confirmation meetings.

Daines requested that the Department of Interior complete the backlog of road repairs and deferred infrastructure projects in U.S. national parks, which are managed by the Department of Interior.

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“What sets America apart from the rest of the world is our public lands and national parks,” Daines said. “Why do you come to America? To enjoy our national parks and public lands.”

Last fall, Daines called national park infrastructure, with crumbling roads and inadequate parking, one of the nation’s biggest challenges, while focusing on the disrepair in Glacier National Park. Zinke grew up in Whitefish, less than a half-hour drive from Glacier.

The senator also asked Zinke to use the cabinet post to strengthen the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses offshore oil and gas royalties to support the conservation of land and water. LWCF raises about $900 million a year, but Congress repeatedly votes to spend the money on other things.

Montana’s delegation has for years argued that the conservation funding should be permanent.

The senator also asked Zinke to lift DOI’s moratorium on federal coal leases.

One year ago this month, outgoing Interior Secretary Sally Jewell suspended federal coal leasing to give the Department of Interior time to determine whether mining companies are paying the public a fair amount for coal taken from federal lands. The suspension was to also give the DOI time to determine whether the bidding process for public coal is truly competitive, and whether coal policy contradicts federal climate change policy, among other things.

Mining companies in the Powder River Basin region of Montana and Wyoming denounced the moratorium as a way to stop coal mining, not study it. Western lawmakers said the same, as did Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat.

Other asks included reconsideration of the Gateway Pacific Terminal, a proposed Puget Sound shipping port considered crucial for exporting coal owned by the Crow Indian Tribe. Last May, the Army Corps of Engineers chose to deny a permit for the terminal after Lummi Nation, a Puget Sound American Indian tribe, argued that its treaty fishing rights were in danger.

Montana’s Crow Tribe argued that blocking port development violated their rights to sell their coal.

Daines also asked for the Department of Interior’s support in finding funding for a $420 million water rights settlement with the Blackfeet Tribe. The settlement includes dam redevelopment and irrigation projects. Zinke sponsored the settlement’s passage in the House last month.

As the director of the Department of Interior, Zinke will oversee the Bureau of Indian Affairs.