President-elect Donald Trump has tapped Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke, a first-term Montana congressman and former Navy SEAL commander, to lead the Department of the Interior.
Trump senior advisor Kellyanne Conway confirmed the decision Tuesday night during an appearance on Fox News and the president-elect sent out a press release on confirming the nomination on Thursday. Conway said Zinke was picked over three other candidates vying for the spot, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, who was seen by many as a top contender for the spot.
"As a former Navy SEAL, he has incredible leadership skills and an attitude of doing whatever it takes to win. America is the most beautiful country in the world and he is going to help keep it that way with smart management of our federal lands," Trump said in a statement.
Zinke, 55, has been praised locally for protecting public lands but perceived as an adversary to environmentalist causes. His appointment as secretary of the Department of the Interior and head of its 70,000 government employees could signal a significant change of course for the federal agency, which has been overseeing the management of more public lands in the past eight years.
"I will work tirelessly to ensure our public lands are managed and preserved in a way that benefits everyone for generations to come. Most important, our sovereign Indian Nations and territories must have the respect and freedom they deserve," Zinke said in a statement. "I look forward to making the Department of Interior and America great again."
Under the Obama administration, the Department of the Interior has overseen the designation of more public parks and "protected more acres of public lands and water than any administration in American history," according to the White House.
Zinke has been seen as a protector of open spaces in Montana, although his stance appears centered more toward access of public lands by hunters and sportsmen than conservation.
He has also raised concern among conservation groups for his stance on energy production in federal lands.
In contrast, the Department of the Interior and the agencies under it have been criticized by some groups for limiting the access to public lands of ranchers, miners and loggers, impacting local communities in the West.
Zinke has called for better management of public lands, but has stopped short of supporting the transfer of public lands to state authorities, although he has advocated for some sort of local control of public lands.
The management of public lands has become a particularly hot topic in Western states, where tensions between ranchers and federal agents have led to armed confrontations.
Public lands in the West have become a conglomeration of interests including land owners, environmentalists, miners, loggers and public access advocates that often clash over how the lands are used and managed.
While Zinke has voted for the conservation of public land, the Montana congressman has also stepped in on behalf of miners for access to the land.
In June, Zinke proposed creating a "watchdog panel" composed of local government, tribal, and mining industry representatives after the Department of the Interior suspended new coal leases, the Billings Gazette reported.
In contrast, under Sally Jewell, the current Interior secretary, the department has faced criticism for not taking the economic interests of local ranchers, miners and loggers into account.
Zinke is described on his campaign website as an advocate for public access and multiple use of public land, but he has been seen as an adversary to environmental issues. The League of Conservation Voters has given Zinke a rating of 3% out of 100 on the group's environmental scorecard.
Theresa Pierno, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said she and her group were concerned about Zinke's stance on energy development on federal lands and his past votes in the House blocking the designation of new national parks.
"Though Mr. Zinke has expressed support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and opposes the sale of public lands, he has prioritized the development of oil, has and other resources over the protection of clean water and air, and wildlife," Peirno said in a statement. "Mr. Zinke has advocated for state control of energy development on federal lands, a move that threatens our national parks."
The decisions made by the future Secretary of the Department of the Interior and the president-elect, she added, could impact the natural regions of the country for generations.
But other groups in the West have been pushing to have less federal influence in public lands.
The issue of federal land management is one that has been adopted by a growing militia movement in the west, which opposes federal control and have led to tense and high-profile confrontations with agents with the Bureau of Land Management — an agency within the Interior department.
In 2014, militia groups descended onto the property of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and met federal agents at gunpoint after Bundy refused to pay years of grazing fees.
Earlier this year, leaders of militia groups that supported the Bundy Ranch standoff also led an armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon.
Supporters of the standoffs have advocated for federal authorities to surrender control of the lands to local authorities, and some politicians have taken their cause to state and federal legislatures.
Zinke, however has broken ranks with Republicans and resigned as a delegate to the convention this year when the party's platform called called for the transfer federal lands to the states. Zinke said he opposed the transfer of the lands, but supported better land management.
However, Zinke supported a bill introduced by Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador that would create a 4-million acre pilot program that would give local control of the federal lands, including giving a seat to local mining interests.
Before meeting with Trump on Monday, the president-elect transition team's spokesman, Jason Miller, touted Zinke's position on energy as the Montana congressman headed toward the Trump family's suite.
"Congressman Zinke is a strong advocate for American energy independence, and he supports all-encompassing energy policy that includes renewables, fossil fuels and alternative energy," Miller said.