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Trump's nominee for interior secretary likes federal lands. That worries some Alaskans.

  • Author: Erica Martinson
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published December 16, 2016

WASHINGTON — Some Alaskans are skeptical about President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for interior secretary, one-term Republican Congressman Ryan Zinke of Montana.

Zinke is deeply opposed to handing federal lands over to states or private parties. That's not what many Alaska Republicans were hoping for from the next chief of the Interior Department, which holds major sway in a state with more than 200 million acres of federally owned land.

Nevertheless, Alaska's congressional delegation has expressed confidence in Zinke.

U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke arrives for a meeting with President-elect Donald Trump in New York City on Dec. 12,. (Brendan McDermid / Reuters)

Trump officially announced his nomination of Zinke to head the Interior Department on Thursday.

Prior to Zinke's meeting with Trump on Monday, Trump's senior policy adviser Stephen Miller said Zinke was an "early Trump supporter" and that the congressman "is a strong advocate for American energy independence. … Additionally, Congressman Zinke believes we need to find a way to cut through bureaucracy to ensure our nation's parks, forests and other public areas are properly maintained and used effectively."

Zinke was the only Republican to oppose legislation offered by Alaska Rep. Don Young, a Republican, to transfer 2 million acres of federal land in Tongass National Forest to the state.

And he was so opposed to an Alaska-offered provision to the party platform at the Republican National Committee this summer that he resigned from his position as a delegate to the convention. The provision called on Congress to pass a law that requires the federal government to hand federal lands back over to the states.

The Alaskan who offered that provision, delegate Judy Eledge, said in an email that she is "extremely concerned" about Zinke's nomination and that she is "sure our two senators and congressman are not too happy either."

But, Eledge said, "I do know that he mirrors President-elect Trump's views on federal land. We were hoping to educate him," but that "will be difficult with this cabinet pick."

Former Alaska GOP spokeswoman Suzanne Downing raised concerns about the nomination on her personal blog this week as well.

"Alaskans are going to want to know a lot more about how Zinke thinks when it comes to federal lands," she wrote. And "Alaskans will want to know just how squishy Zinke is when it comes to resource development," she said, suggesting that concerned citizens get in touch with Alaska Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski.

Sullivan said he was pleased with the pick — particularly Zinke's "impressive career as a U.S. Navy SEAL" — but he would like to garner a "better understanding of why and to what degree he is against the transfer of certain federal lands to state and private hands. His views on this particular issue are of vital importance to the economy and livelihood of Alaskans due to Alaska's unique federal, state and private lands status and laws."

Then-Montana state Sen. Ryan Zinke addresses a pro-gun rally as part of the National Day of Resistance, at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City Feb. 23, 2013. (Jim Urquhart / Reuters file)

Young, who worked with Zinke on the House Natural Resources Committee, spoke to the nominee for about 30 minutes this week regarding his nomination, according to Young's spokesman Matt Shuckerow.

"Although we may share differences on certain issues, we spoke extensively on the issues of land management — the idea that we shouldn't be locking away lands but truly managing them," Young said in a statement in which he also expressed pleasure with the appointment.

"And that's what excites me. He's big on streamlining development, overturning needless regulations and trying to make the government more responsive to local people — all of which are important for Alaska," Young said. "We also spoke on the need to overturn (current Interior Secretary Sally) Jewell's heartless denial of the King Cove road, the massive overreach of federal land managers in Alaska, the importance of local consultation."

Young said he was most pleased with the fact that a Westerner was appointed to the position.

The last appointed interior secretary who was not from the West — and the only one in the 20th century — was Rogers C.B. Morton, appointed by Richard Nixon to replace Alaskan Walter J. Hickel.

"I'm confident under a new administration we can begin making the changes necessary to improve (the Interior Department) — including the Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management — to meet the needs of the Alaskan and American people," Young said.

Murkowski heads the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and will oversee Zinke's nomination hearings, which may give her some leverage in proceedings. But Cabinet secretaries require only a simple majority vote for Senate confirmation, so Zinke would have to be undone by Republican objections.

Murkowski previously said her committee staff was offering input and opinions on whom to nominate to lead the Interior Department. But the selection of Zinke suggests that an Alaska perspective may not have been a high priority for the Trump administration.

On Thursday, a Wall Street Journal story on the Zinke nomination said Trump spent most of his Monday meeting with potential nominee Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., asking her to answer for criticisms she made of him during the campaign. Rodgers raised concerns about sexually provocative statements Trump made on a leaked audio recording but she did not withdraw her endorsement.

Murkowski, to the contrary, said she would not vote for Trump in light of his statements and Alaska's ongoing problems with sexual assault. Sullivan also said he would not vote for Trump.

Murkowski was re-elected for a six-year term and continues to head the committee that oversees the Interior Department's policies, as well as its budget, as chair of the Interior appropriations subcommittee. How she will use that leverage remains to be seen.

"I welcome the President-elect's nomination of Rep. Ryan Zinke to be Secretary of the Interior," Murkowski said in a statement after the pick was officially announced. "I look forward to meeting with him to discuss a range of critical issues, including the challenges we face on federal management of lands and waters in Alaska, the urgent need to increase energy production in my home state, and our trust responsibilities to Alaska Natives and Native Americans."

Murkowski added she is "eager to learn more about Rep. Zinke's views on the differing roles of state and federal regulators on public lands, how he would restore balance to the multiple use of federal lands, and how he would approach federal lands transactions."

Murkowski said she would hold a nomination hearing for Zinke in "early January."

Correction: This story previously misidentified Suzanne Downing's position with the Alaska Republican Party. She left her position as spokesperson after the November 8 election. 

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