President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for interior secretary will kick off this week of confirmation hearings, and he’s expected to face tough questions on climate change and the use of public lands from both sides of the aisle.
Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke will face the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday afternoon as the Senate reconvenes for another round of intense confirmation hearings after a long holiday weekend.
Topics of interest to committee members include climate change, sale and use of public lands, tribal law and relations, invasive and endangered species concerns and fire and drought management and preparedness. The committee is stocked with Western state senators, for whom these policies matter a great deal.
Zinke is a decorated former Navy SEAL, serving 23 years, and former state senator. He is in his second term in Congress, being elected for the first time in 2014.
“I am an unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt and believe he had it right when he placed under federal protection millions of acres of federal lands and set aside much of it as National forests,” Zinke will say in opening remarks released by the transition. “I also recognize that the preponderance of our federal holdings are better suited to be managed under the Pinchot model of multiple use using best practices, sustainable policies and objective science.”
His selection as the Interior nominee was due in part to his views as a Western state lawmaker and on public lands. Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., is an avid hunter and fisher and subscriber to a Teddy Roosevelt view of public lands that mixes conservation and development. Zinke often cites himself as a Roosevelt acolyte, as well.
Trump Jr. was actively involved in the search for an interior nominee, speaking openly with sportsmen publications about his interest in the role.
Committee members are expected to question Zinke heavily on climate change and public lands. Zinke has had shifting positions on those issues. In 2010, Zinke signed on to a letter asking him to address climate change, according to the Billings Gazette, but during his campaign for the House said the science is not proven on whether climate change is man made.
Zinke wrote in an op-ed last spring that “selling off our public lands is a non-starter,” though he voted in favor of a House rules package this month that would make it easier for the government to sell off federal land.
Republicans are also concerned about late moves by the Obama administration to designate wide swaths of land as national monuments, effectively using executive action to create federal land. Republicans decry the move as federal overreach — while Democrats will likely seek assurances from Zinke that the Trump administration would not be the first to overturn a national monument designation. The underlying authority, the Antiquities Act, will also be a likely topic of conversation.
Before Zinke takes questions, he’ll be introduced by his state’s bipartisan Senate delegation. Montana Sens. Steve Daines, a Republican, and Jon Tester, a Democrat, will speak on Zinke’s behalf, according to a committee aide.
Daines will highlight Zinke’s experience as a Montanan with public lands, saying he knows that there’s a “balance” between conservation and development that also must be tailored to locals outside of DC, according to excerpts of his prepared opening remarks shared with CNN.
“Ryan Zinke is whip smart and is the guy you want in your corner, whether you’re fighting in the streets of Fallujah for your life or fighting on the floor of Congress for your livelihood,” Daines is expected to say. “He listens and he fights for what he believes in. I have absolutely no doubt he will be a fighter for America and our public lands as the next secretary of interior.”
Other hot topics including invasive and endangered species are also strong interests of members of the committee fire and drought concerns. Government relationships with Native American tribes will also be a focal point, as the Department of Interior oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Many members of the committee live in states with strong Native American populations, and will likely have questions for Zinke.
While Democrats may be less inclined to interrogate Zinke on the political and personal side of his confirmation than some more controversial nominees, plenty of questions could still come up.
The Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee has published its entire collection of opposition research on Zinke, and in campaigns he has faced attacks about his relationship with the PACs he founded and whether there was improper coordination or payments from the political groups, about his business interests and about his military record and travel funds he had to repay to the Navy in the late ’90s for what was described as “lapses in judgment” in his annual review.
Zinke has said that his and his PACs’ actions were “completely transparent” and “above board, as he said in a Media Trackers interview during his first congressional campaign. The transition said all of his business dealings were reported clearly in required financial disclosures to Congress.
The Republican also wrote about his military travel in his 2016 biography as a learning experience.
“I ended up having to repay $211 in unauthorized expenses, but the biggest penalty was being embarrassed for wrongdoing,” Zinke wrote. “Lesson learned, all of us are accountable to someone.”