To say that Ryan Zinke has a mixed record on the environment may sound like saying that pouring a shot of tequila into a gallon of orange juice makes a mixed drink.
U.S. Rep. Zinke, R-Mont., is the apparent nominee to serve as secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. His confused record on public lands, climate change and America’s energy future is drawing predictable outcries, but he may turn out to be the most environmentally sensitive member of President Trump’s cabinet.
True, that’s in part because Trump is filling top jobs with people who tread around the environment like a fresh cow patty. The secretary of state nominee has spent his career with a company that funded climate skepticism. The new head of the Environmental Protection Agency is suing the agency he wants to lead. The attorney general nominee has suggested that climate science is a plot against poor people.
The Department of Energy nominee would have banned that agency if he could have remembered its name. The Trump transition team already has asked for names of Energy Department employees who have worked on reducing carbon emissions, apparently plotting an early purge.
Compared to all that, Zinke, who has called himself a Teddy Roosevelt Republican, sounds like the Mother Teresa of the West. His only nonnegotiable political principle is pointing out that he was a Navy Seal, but he still manages to do the right thing from time to time.
His career scorecard from the League of Conservation Voters is a meager 3 percent, even worse than Congress’ favorability rating. Among other things, the league dings Zinke for his votes on legislation relating to the sale and import of ivory, the president’s authority to designate national monuments, protecting endangered species, and keeping water clean.
On the other hand, he withdrew as a delegate to the Republican National Convention because of the party’s platform plank in favor of transferring federal lands to the states. At a Natural Resources Committee meeting in June, Zinke voted against a public lands transfer bill—then voted for a bill that would appoint advisory committees to promote economic activity on certain public lands. Some environmentalists considered the second bill nearly as bad as the first.
Zinke’s own statements don’t do much to clarify his positions. After mentioning his military service twice in a 2014 guest column on public lands in the Missoulian, Zinke touched on grazing fees; wildfire suppression; payments in lieu of taxes; policies to “ensure that decisions support Montana families rather than East Coast ideas”; out-of-control spending; diminishing individual rights; free market competition; health care; energy independence; American exceptionalism; “nefarious websites”; and job creation.
He added that federal agencies “need to go back to carrying a shovel and a bucket rather than a Taser,” a touch of poetry, or perhaps dementia, that still fails to stake out a clear position on public lands.
A little uncertainty is understandable. Nearly 30 percent of Montana’s land is publicly owned. That isn’t a magic number. Reasonable proposals to reconfigure or reallocate some portion of public lands are always worth considering. The key word is reasonable.
Zinke’s position on climate change is even muddier. As a state legislator in 2010, he signed a letter to the president calling for climate change legislation. But by 2014, he was telling the Bozeman Chronicle that he saw no scientific evidence for climate change and that global temperatures had shown no pattern of warming in the last 16 years.
Hint: When a politician sets out to disprove a decades-long trend by citing a random-sounding year, he’s probably lying. Why 16 years? Why not 10? Why not 20?
Zinke went on to say, “I’m a conservationist, but when there’s a volcano in the Philippines that erupts and produces more CO2 than humans have produced in 200 years – is CO2 really the problem?”
That’s like saying, why stop at traffic lights when somebody might shoot you tomorrow? Get too close to the light and it blinds you. The closer Zinke gets to power, the worse his vision gets.
Zinke remains closely tied to coal production, a politically expedient position that makes less economic and environmental sense with each passing day. Still, Zinke has opposed bills to sell off public lands to promote timber production, and he backed funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Zinke’s nomination drew immediate praise from U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., generally a reliable indicator that it’s a bad idea. The nomination also drew support from hunting and fishing groups, a cautious nod from Indian tribes and the usual protests from conservation groups.
The Northern Plains Resource Council immediately expressed its concerns, attacking Zinke’s positions on federal leasing, coal exports and gas flaring—pretty weak tea. The Intelligent Discontent blog broke its post-election hiatus to criticize the nomination, hauling out a dirty laundry list of past grievances.
Democrats can take some consolation in the appointment, which could mean that Zinke won’t challenge Sen. Jon Tester, R-Mont., in 2018. If Zinke wins confirmation, he would be temporarily replaced by an appointed Republican, but a special election next year could provide an early test of voters’ remorse, if any, over the 2016 election.
Besides, the nomination could have been worse. It could have been Daines.