Why Trump’s pick for Interior wants land to stay federal

Rep. Ryan Zinke, President-elect Trump's pick for Interior secretary. Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC 2.0
Rep. Ryan Zinke, President-elect Trump’s pick for Interior secretary. Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC 2.0

No federal appointee has as much control over Alaska as the secretary of the Interior , the person in charge of all National parks and preserves, BLM land and federal refuges. President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Interior secretary is Congressman Ryan Zinke, R-Montana. Alaska’s congressional delegation likes a lot of what he stands for. There’s just one big exception.

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Zinke believes federal land should remain in federal ownership. In his re-election campaign this summer, he and his opponent accused each other of being weak on public lands.

“I have always been a strong supporter of public lands and have voted against the sale or transfer of public lands,” Zinke insisted in an interview with Montana Public Radio.

That’s heresy to many Alaskans, particularly Republicans. They say the federal government, owner of some 60 percent of the state, has too much control over Alaska. Sen. Lisa Murkowski shot a video, standing in front of a map showing Alaska’s public lands, to argue the feds are locking up Alaska.

“When you add it all up, the federal government is now blocking development of our most resource rich land and waters. And that’s depriving Alaskans of our ability to produce energy, minerals (and) timber,” she said.

Among the three Alaskans in Congress, they’ve sponsored dozens of bills to sell or transfer federal land, from city lots in Anchorage to vast parts of Southeast and bits of the Arctic.

Zinke hasn’t always been a fan.

When Alaska Congressman Don Young sponsored a bill to transfer two million acres of National Forest to the states, Zinke was the only Republican “no” vote in the House Resources Committee. Last year, Zinke voted against the Republican budget because of a Senate amendment in favor of federal land transfers. That amendment was Murkowski’s.

At the Republican National Convention this summer, Zinke resigned from his state’s delegation over a plank in the party platform calling for federal land conveyance. That plank was sponsored by Alaska delegate Judy Eledge.

“We were all very shocked, being that he’s from a Western state and most of them, they

Judy Eledge is a Cruz delegate who says she on board with Trump now. Photo: Lawrence Ostrovsky.
Judy Eledge, of Anchorage, was a delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention. Photo: Lawrence Ostrovsky.

very much want some of the federal land returned,” Eledge said. She says his reaction has left her with reservations about Zinke becoming Interior secretary.

But Montana hunter Randy Newberg, host of the “Fresh Tracks” hunting series on the Sportsman Channel, says Alaskans shouldn’t mistake Zinke for someone who wants to see federal lands locked up.

Through national hunting groups he’s part of, Newberg says he helped promote Zinke for Interior secretary, largely because of his position that federal lands should remain federal. Zinke is reported to be an avid, lifelong hunter.

“I hope the Alaska listener understands why this has such a different dynamic to it in the Lower 48 than it does in Alaska,” Newberg said.

Randy Newberg, of Montana, hosts a hunting show on the the Sportsman Channel. Photo courtesy of Randy Newberg

Newberg is no stranger to Alaskan attitudes about the feds. His grandparents lived in Haines, he worked on their halibut long liner when he was in high school, and he’s filmed six episodes of his hunting show in Alaska.

“I’ve got three uncles and family still living there in Haines. So I hunt there a lot and I’m always perplexed by how much influence the federal government has in Alaska, as far as game management,” he said.

In Montana, he says, the big fear is that land conveyed to the state will be sold. There it’s private ownership that tends to lock up land, by shutting off public access.

“In the Lower 48, federal control preserves hunting and fishing access,” Newberg said. “Even with all its warts and bumps and other problems — no one is going to advocate that federal land management is the text book of how you do it. But if you like to hunt and fish, you would way rather have these lands in federal control than you would with the state land boards.”

Newberg says, though, that if Zinke is confirmed as Interior Secretary, he would likely be sympathetic to complaints that the feds are managing Alaska with a heavy hand.


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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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