Billings Gazette: Zinke confirmed as Interior secretary; Montana prepares for special election

Ryan Zinke has been sworn as secretary of the Interior.

The U.S. Senate’s Wednesday confirmation triggered Zinke’s resignation from Congress and a special election to replace him.

Zinke became the first Montanan to serve in a U.S. Cabinet. Approved by the Senate 68 to 31, the Whitefish native is the nation’s 52nd Interior secretary. Montana’s U.S. Sens. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and Steve Daines, a Republican, both voted to confirm Zinke.

“First, I want to say thank you to the people of Montana,” Zinke said in a statement announcing his resignation. “It has been an honor to serve you in Congress, and I appreciate the faith and trust you put in me to represent your values, interests and priorities. It was my privilege to sit at your kitchen tables and in your schools to talk about problems we face and the solutions to tackle those issues. Perhaps no issues were more important to me personally than looking out for our troops, respecting sovereignty of the tribes, and maintaining access to our public lands.”

Montana reacts

Gov. Steve Bullock set a special election for May 25 to fill Zinke’s House seat. Bullock said after the confirmation it is important to fill the vacancy as quickly as possible.

There are now five vacant seats in the U.S. House.

“I congratulate Ryan Zinke on his confirmation as secretary of the Interior,” Bullock said in press release. “Montanans know how important this post is to protecting our public lands, outdoor recreation, tourism, and natural resource industries — and the thousands of good-paying Montana jobs that rely on them. I will work closely with secretary Zinke to ensure our state’s interests are reflected in Washington, D.C., and I will hold him accountable to Montanans and to the values we place on our outdoor heritage.”

The state of Montana is in the middle of negotiating a federal lands transfer under the Enabling Act. More than a year in the making, the transfer is expected to be finalized in July.

Before Zinke’s confirmation vote, Senate Democrats took turns expressing worries about Zinke’s commitment to protecting federal public lands, which has become a political battle cry in Western politics.

Daines took the floor to dispel those public lands concerns.

“I have heard all week, some friends on the other side of the aisle speak against my good friend from Montana,” Daines said. “I am perplexed. Their concern that Ryan Zinke may not uphold the important roles of the Department of Interior, and that is to protect the public interests in land and mineral management. That he’ll take shortcuts to extract minerals.

“Well, let me tell you what Ryan Zinke will do,” Daines said. “He will finally restore balance to the use and management of federal land.”

After the vote, Tester issued this statement:

“I believe Congressman Zinke will do right by Montana and the country in this role. Montana will be watching, and I know he’ll make us proud,” Tester said. 

Public lands promise

The Interior Department manages more than 20 million public federal acres in Montana, including Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. Nationally, the Department of the Interior manages 500 million acres, onshore and offshore, with a staff of 70,000 and a $12 billion budget. The department manages billions in revenue collected from leases on coal, oil and natural gas, as well as revenue from national parks. It also includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Maintaining federal ownership of those lands has become a political battle cry in Western states where the federal government owns a third of all surface acres and often the oil, gas and mineral rights beneath private property. Democrats have warned that federal lands could be transferred to states, which would then sell them off.

Zinke reiterated his commitment to keeping the lands public in his resignation statement.

“As your Congressman, I always looked to you for guidance, and it was with your resounding support that I actively fought to keep our public lands public,” Zinke said. “I consistently bucked party leadership and voiced my opinions loud and clear in the House Committee on Natural Resources, and I voted at every turn to oppose the sale and transfer of our public lands. I assure you that I will continue fighting for our public lands as I serve Montana and the American people in the Department of the Interior.”

In January, Zinke outlined his priorities for the Department of Interior. He said the department needed to restore trust with local communities and states. Zinke cited the $12.5 billion maintenance backlog at U.S. national parks and called for folding those repairs into President Donald Trump’s plans for a national infrastructure upgrade.

Zinke also said DOI employees who work directly with the public needed more flexibility to make decisions.

However, the headline from the Jan. 17 confirmation hearing was that Zinke rejected President Trump’s claim that climate change is a hoax.

“I don’t believe it’s a hoax,” Zinke told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at his confirmation hearing. “The climate is changing; man is an influence. I think where there’s debate is what that influence is and what can we do about it.”

Special election

With no time for a primary election, Montana’s political parties will gather their county committee people and select a House candidate from a large sample of nominees. The Montana Democratic Party confirmed Tuesday that it will select its candidate at a Sunday nominating convention in Helena. The Montana Republican party will do the same Monday.

Democrats now have eight candidates interested in the special election. Legislators Kelly McCarthy of Billings and Amanda Curtis of Butte are interested. Creston resident and musician Rob Quist of Mission Mountain Wood Band fame is traveling Montana courting central committee members. In addition, there’s attorney John Meyer of Bozeman, Tom Weida of Helena, Link Neimark of Whitefish, and Missoulians Dan West and Gary Stein.

Montana Republican Party Chairman Jeff Essmann said the GOP will hold its nominating convention soon, but not by this weekend. Republicans charge nominees a $1,750 filing fee. Republicans who have paid the fee to run include former gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte of Bozeman, former state Republican chairman Ken Miller of Laurel, Drew Turiano of East Helena, Dean Rehbein of Missoula, state Sen. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls, state Rep. Carl Glimm of Kila and former state legislator Ed Walker of Billings.

Trump nominated Zinke to lead the Interior Department in December. A former Navy SEAL commander, Zinke had been easily re-elected to Congress in November, defeating Democrat Denise Juneau, the former superintendent of Montana’s Office of Public Instruction.