As we’ve shared on the blog, the new president’s nominee to become the next Secretary of the Interior is Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT). Last week, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (ENR) held a hearing on the nomination, with Rep. Zinke there to testify. I was in D.C.—straight off the plane from two weeks paddling in Patagonia—and went down to the Hill to check it out and enjoy a solid reentry shock to the system.
(Before the hearing, we sent a letter to ENR outlining what we hoped to hear from Rep. Zinke that you can find here).
What’s a confirmation hearing like? Basically, all the Senators on ENR (it’s in that committee because they have jurisdiction over public lands issues) are sitting in a semi-circle around the front of a room that looks a lot like a courtroom. In front, facing them, is Rep. Zinke, with an audience of the general public sitting behind him. There are some opening statements, and then after that, it’s basically the committee asking the nominee questions about his record, his public lands philosophy, or even specific agency policies. Some of the Senators also use their time to vent about issues they have with the Department of Interior. If you’re ever inclined to watch something like this, hearings are open to the public, and you can also usually stream them live through the committee’s website.
What we heard from Rep. Zinke was for the most part quite good. He described his three priorities for DOI as working with states and communities to restore trust in the agency; addressing the National Parks maintenance backlog, including fighting for parks funding as part of an infrastructure bill; and making sure that land managers have the tools, resources, and flexibility that they need to address problems and make decisions at the field level.
In response to a question from Sen. Sanders (I-VT), Rep. Zinke stated, “I am absolutely against the transfer or sale of public land.” It was a forceful statement, and we were glad to hear it.
He also reaffirmed his support for permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, several times mentioned the importance of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA—a bedrock environmental law that can sometimes be a target for opponents of conservation), and stated that he believed “clean water is a right, it’s not a privilege.” He brought up his admiration of Teddy Roosevelt a number of times—which would certainly be some big shoes to fill if he truly intends to make him a role model.
There were also some times in the hearing when he was less strong. He repeatedly described the recent designation of the Bears Ears National Monument as a problem; he committed to going out to Utah to hear from residents, which makes sense, but seemed to leave open the possibility of altering—or even trying to revoke—the new designation.
Later in the hearing, Rep. Zinke made a comment about title to public lands being “different than management,” seemingly suggesting a larger role for states in the management of public lands. This sounds reasonable in principle, but most of the legislation we’ve seen around this idea is essentially aimed at circumventing the laws on the books that are aimed at ensuring balance in the management of public lands and protecting conservation values. While locals always have important things to contribute to conversations on public lands management, public lands are national lands with a national constituency that also has an important say.
We also found his statements on climate change a lot less forceful than some of his other statements. He eventually made his way around to acknowledging that climate change is indeed real and human-caused, but recognizing its reality is a far from sufficient response from someone who would like to lead the Department of Interior. Fossil fuels derived from public lands play a significant role in exacerbating the problem of climate change, and clean energy derived from public lands could be a part of the solution. Additionally, as the climate changes, our public lands will face threats that demand a robust response from the agencies responsible for stewarding them. We would have liked to hear a stronger response to this grave threat from Rep. Zinke, particularly given his stated ambition to manage the lands in a way—like Roosevelt—that future generations will look back on with admiration.
All in all, we were mostly pleased with what we heard. The hearing was cordial for the most part, and we are confident that Rep. Zinke is going to be confirmed. We are pleased that Rep. Zinke was chosen to lead Interior, and we support his confirmation.
Our follow-up letter to ENR is available at right.