JMC Fellow in the Washington Post

“Meet the Trump appointee liberals might not hate”

Ryan Zinke’s record on public land use should be a relief to Westerners and conservationists.

By Robert P Saldin, associate professor of political science at the University of Montana and the author of “When Bad Policy Makes Good Politics.”


For Democrats, the past six weeks have been a downward spiral, with each Cabinet announcement from President-elect Trump inducing further panic. The emerging hallmark of Trump’s nominees has been a hostility to the core mission of the agencies they would soon be running. Betsy DeVos, nominee for education secretary, is a strident advocate for “local control,” which some perceive as code for draining federal money from public schools to subsidize private school tuition for well-off families. Over at the Energy Department, former Texas governor Rick Perry is set to lead an agency he vowed to eliminate during his 2012 presidential run. Trump’s pick for the Environmental Protection Agency is Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier with a long history of legal wrangling with the agency he has been chosen to take over.

The names on Trump’s shortlist for interior secretary were downright frightening to those in the conservation community: former Alaska governor Sara Palin, Texas oil tycoon Forrest Lucas, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, and two of Congress’s leading anti-public-lands zealots, Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho). But this week’s surprise announcement that Rep. Ryan Zinke, a first-term Montana Republican, has been tapped for the position is reason for many in the conservation community to break out the champagne.

Before Zinke’s pick, many Westerners were holding their breath for word about who would lead the Interior Department, arguably the most important Cabinet-level position for the region. The federal government owns massive swaths of the American West, including more than half of the land in Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Alaska and Oregon, with California and Wyoming falling just short of that threshold. Of America’s public lands, 75 percent fall under the purview of key Interior agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and theFish and Wildlife Service. Overall, the department manages more than 500 million acres for recreation and energy development.

Palin, Bishop, Labrador and others who were being floated for the top job are more in tune with populist-style conservatives over how to manage these lands. A national movement to transfer federal public land ownership to the states has effectively become the default position for the GOP and was endorsed in the party platform this summer. A more extreme version, but by no means beyond mainstream discourse, calls for selling off and privatizing public lands, with possible exceptions carved out for Yellowstone, Yosemite and other treasured national parks and wilderness areas.

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