President-elect Donald Trump may be nominating a Secretary of the Interior shortly: Congressman Ryan Zinke of Montana. The official announcement has not yet been made, but the handwringing in Alaska has begun.
Zinke is on record opposing the transfer of federal land to the states. That’s a position that President-elect Donald Trump also shares, something that raised concerns during his campaign for president.
In June, Zinke voted against a bill offered by Alaska Congressman Don Young. HR 3650, would have permitted up to two millions of acres of the 17-million acre Tongass National Fores land to be transferred to state ownership.
That would have allowed more reasonable and responsible management of the many uses that the Tongass is supposed to provide — timber, recreation, hunting, and fishing, for example.
Every other Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee voted for the State National Forest Management Act of 2015. Zinke was the only Republican who opposed it.
But he didn’t stop there. At the Republican Nominating Convention this summer, Zinke also resigned as a delegate when the transfer of federal lands to state control was placed in the Republican platform by Alaska delegate Judy Eledge. It became part of the platform, and Zinke was having nothing to do with it and made some brash statements as he left the convention.
The platform item reads: “Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to the states. We call upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power of influence to urge the transfer of those lands identified.”
Zinke may have his reasons for his positions. The people he represents in Montana are concerned that federal land could be sold off to extremely wealthy people who would then prevent public access to those lands. In Montana, they have the problem of billionaires buying out millionaires’ land and then transferring it into land trusts, where it gets locked away. His constituency likes their federal landlord.
But Zinke clearly did not respond to the actual legislation nor the concerns expressed by the party platform.
Alaskans are going to want to know a lot more about how Zinke thinks when it comes to federal lands. The 49th State is owned 60 percent by the federal government, and our economy suffers from a colonial bureaucracy that has all but killed the timber industry in Southeast Alaska, mining in Western Alaska, and offshore oil development in the Arctic.
Young’s bill would have addressed the Tongass directly and helped Southeast Alaska from losing jobs and families.
Young, serving in the U.S. House, will not be part of the official advice and consent process for the nomination, although no doubt he will be one of the key influencers. That approval role belongs to the Senate.
Alaskans can send their concerns about Zinke to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee, or Sen. Dan Sullivan.
Those who favor transfer of federal land in Alaska will want our delegation to ask Zinke the tough questions and get commitments out of him prior to confirmation. They’ll also want to be sure the Alaska delegation gets a familiarization tour on Zinke’s schedule right away. He’ll need to understand the state over which he is about to become a landlord.
To be clear, forestry does not come under the purview of the Department of Interior, as it is under the Secretary of Agriculture.
But Zinke’s actions relating to federal control of western lands needs to be examined. And he’ll have a lot of explaining to do for some of the statements he is on record making:
“I’m starting to wonder how many times I have to tell these guys in leadership I’m not going to allow Montana’s public lands to be sold or given away,” Rep. Zinke said, after his vote against Young’s bill. “Two million acres is a lot, even in Montana.”
In Alaska, two million acres is a fraction. Alaskans will want to know just how squishy Zinke is when it comes to resource development. Because our lives and our state depend on it.