- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2016

Rounding out a team that’s poised to ramp up energy exploration on federal lands and move away from a focus on climate change, President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday officially tapped Rep. Ryan Zinke to head the Interior Department.

The selection of Mr. Zinke, an ex-Navy SEAL commander and first-term Republican representing Montana’s at-large congressional district, delighted GOP leaders and oil-and-gas groups while infuriating environmentalists who vowed to oppose the nomination. The pick also comes as something of a political surprise; Mr. Trump reportedly was leaning toward Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington for the job as recently as last weekend.

She met with Trump transition team officials Monday, and while it’s unclear exactly what transpired during that meeting, news that Mr. Trump would select Mr. Zinke began to leak out shortly afterwards.

As was the case with his picks for the Energy Department and Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. Trump is making clear his administration will favor domestic energy production over climate-change regulations, and the president-elect said Thursday he believes federally owned lands are ripe for development.

Mr. Zinke “has incredible leadership skills and an attitude of doing whatever it takes to win. America is the most beautiful country in the world and he is going to help keep it that way with smart management of our federal lands,” Mr. Trump said in a statement. “At the same time, my administration’s goal is to repeal bad regulations and use our natural resources to create jobs and wealth for the American people, and Ryan will explore every possibility for how we can safely and responsibly do that.”

If confirmed, Mr. Zinke would oversee a vast portfolio that includes one-fifth of the U.S. surface land (more than 500 million acres) including America’s national parks and monuments, and would regulate energy exploration on federal land. The Interior secretary also is the key government liaison with American Indian tribes.

Mr. Zinke also is the latest in a trend of Interior secretaries hailing from Western states. President Obama’s first Interior secretary, Ken Salazar, previously served as a U.S. senator from Colorado. Mr. Salazar was replaced by Sally Jewell, the former CEO of Washington-based outdoor company REI.

In his own statement, Mr. Zinke took shots at his predecessors and vowed to make the Interior Department “great again,” a spin on Mr. Trump’s famous campaign slogan.

“I will work tirelessly to ensure our public lands are managed and preserved in a way that benefits everyone for generations to come,” the congressman said. “I look forward to making the Department of Interior and America great again.”

Powerful environmental groups already had vowed to mount an aggressive fight against former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, tapped to be energy secretary, and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, the pending head of the EPA, during upcoming congressional confirmation hearings. The case of Mr. Zinke will be no different.

“Public lands are held in trust for all of us and should be managed as an investment in the future,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “Yet, Zinke is firmly in the past, clinging to plans to mine, drill and log public lands to benefit corporate polluters, supporting dangerous and dirty projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, and opposing efforts to clean up our air.”

Other critics say Mr. Trump and Mr. Zinke will degrade federal lands through energy exploration, reversing the Obama administration’s tack of closing down federal property for drilling and mining.

“President Obama and Secretary Jewell have left a sterling legacy of environmental progress, and Rep. Zinke will be tasked with either defending that legacy or unraveling it. It seems abundantly clear which path President-elect Trump would prefer he take,” said Bradley Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation.

Top Republicans say Mr. Zinke, a noted outdoorsman who serves on the House Natural Resources Committee, is an ideal choice for the post.

“He has been an ardent supporter of all-of-the-above energy policies and responsible land management. And as a Westerner with close to one third of his state owned by the federal government, he is intimately familiar with how Washington’s decisions affect people’s lives,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said.

Under Mr. Zinke, oil-and-gas groups will expect an Interior Department that’s much more favorable to fossil fuels.

“Congressman Zinke understands the critical role that the Interior Department plays in balancing the effective management of our nation’s lands and waters with multiple use policies that open access to the public for conservation, recreational opportunities, job-creating economic activities, and safe, responsible energy development,” said Barry Russell, president and CEO of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

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