Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Montana Republican, is reportedly president-elect Donald Trump’s choice to run the U.S. Department of the Interior. Zinke, who has both voted against the transfer of public lands to states and advocated for full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund — a priority for sportsmen — is not as divisive a pick as other rumored contenders, such as oil-friendly Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin or former Alaska Gov. Sarah “drill baby drill” Palin. That said, environmentalists aren’t exactly cheering, either.
Zinke describes himself as an avid outdoorsman, but he has criticized the Obama administration’s decision to halt Keystone XL and has called for an end to the moratorium on new coal leases on federal land. The geology grad and former Navy Seal explains on his website that he “supports an all-of-the-above energy policy which includes renewables, fossil fuels and alternative energy.” During his campaign for the House in 2014, Zinke said about climate change, “It’s not a hoax, but it’s not proven science either … You don’t dismantle America’s power and energy on a maybe.”
If confirmed, Zinke would oversee the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. How he chooses to lead the department could have major repercussions for ranchers and sheepherders, about 22,000 of whom rely on public land to graze their animals, mostly in the West. The federal government owns just under half of all the land in the West, a fact that has provoked rancor in some circles.
Earlier this year, a group of cattle ranchers occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, demanding that control of federal lands be given over to the states — or better yet, to the ranchers themselves. Opponents of this idea have pointed out that ranchers get a good deal grazing on federal property. Federal grazing permits cost $2.11 per AUM (the amount of forage needed to feed one cow and her calf for one month), while no state charges less than $3 AUM for grazing on state land, according to the Center for Western Priorities, a pro-public lands advocacy group. In Zinke’s Montana the rate is $20.
The American Lands Council, founded by Utah Republican Rep. Ken Ivory and Elko County, Nev., commissioner Delmar Dahl, helped put the idea of a public-lands transfer in the GOP platform. Both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz supported the proposal during their failed presidential bids, but Zinke and Trump, albeit less clearly, have each come out against it. Zinke was the sole Republican to vote against a land-transfer bill that would have given states authority over two million federal acres.
One study out of the University of Utah found that it would cost Utah $275 million a year to take control of current federal lands, which makes some experts worry that states would ultimately be forced to sell public lands to the highest bidder.
Trump, meanwhile, told Field and Stream in January about public-land transfers: “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do.” He later equivocated in a Reno Gazette-Journal op-ed, saying he would support more state input into public lands and that the BLM had imposed “draconian rule” on the public.
Many environmentalists say, however, that the greatest threat to public lands under a Trump administration isn’t states auctioning off forests, but rather the federal government opening more land to coal, oil and gas leases. That move would affect ranchers as surely as conservationists.
Jeanie Alderson, whose family has operated a cattle ranch in southeastern Montana since the 1880s, told FERN’s Ag Insider that she’s nervous Trump will make it easier for companies to extract the federal minerals under her property. “What is scary about the Trump presidency is this notion that all regulations are bad,” she said. “Anything that is done to extract coal or coalbed methane harms and pollutes our water. You can’t mine an area and keep ranching it, in my opinion.”
Like many western ranchers, Alderson owns her property, but the government owns the rights to the minerals underneath it — a situation called “split estate.” In the early 2000s the BLM leased Alderson’s mineral rights to a coalbed-methane company for around $2 an acre. Ultimately the company didn’t follow through on plans to drill, but Alderson says she fears the day that drilling becomes economically viable again.
Still, Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program, isn’t surprised that so many ranchers and farmers voted for Trump, even when they have a lot to lose from greater energy development.
“That’s the dichotomy about these elections. People don’t really vote on climate or environmental issues,” says Manuel. “The ranchers that voted for Trump voted for him for a lot of reasons, but not to harm their ranch by fracking next to them or putting up oil pads next to where they’re grazing their livestock.”
According to The Disappearing West, a project of the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Conservation Science Partners, between 2001 and 2011 natural areas in the West, including forests, wetlands, desert and grassland, have disappeared at the rate of about one football field every 2.5 minutes. The most recent losses in natural space have been primarily due to suburban sprawl, but energy development was the second-leading cause.