Four months into his new job as Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke returned to his hometown of Whitefish on Tuesday, emphasizing energy development and what he described as his department’s effort to reverse a “breach of trust” by federal land-management agencies in a keynote speech to the Western Governors’ Association.
One of Zinke’s most controversial actions since taking over the department in March is his ongoing review of 26 national monuments across the United States — including the Missouri River Breaks National Monument in north-central Montana. During a press conference after his address, Zinke said the Missouri Breaks would “likely” not be among those national monuments that may have federal protections reduced or eliminated under President Donald Trump’s executive order.
“It is my likely recommendation to leave the Missouri Breaks as is,” Zinke said. “... In the case of the Missouri Breaks, I think it’s settled to the degree that I would rather not open up a wound that has been healed.”
Elsewhere, however, the Interior secretary has vowed to open up more federal lands to natural resource development, and he echoed Trump’s call for American “energy dominance” in his remarks to several hundred attendees at the three-day conference.
“Fossil fuels are a part of our mix, and we should be advocates rather than punitive for energy,” Zinke said.
He also sought to connect the administration’s proposed budget — which includes deep cuts to the Land and Water Conservation Fund — to former President Barack Obama’s shift away from offshore oil and gas development.
The fund, established in 1965, collects royalties from federal oil and gas leases and uses the revenue to provide conservation grants to the states. Zinke said the department’s proposed cuts correspond to a drop in those revenues from $18 billion in 2008 to about $2.6 billion in 2016.
Referring to the National Park Service’s $11.5 billion maintenance backlog, he suggested those deferred maintenance projects could also be funded by a return to more aggressive resource development on federal lands.
“At Interior, I’m looking at both sides of the balance sheet. But there’s a consequence when you put 94 percent of our offshore off limits,” he said. “There’s a consequence of not harvesting trees. There’s a consequence of not using some of our public lands for the creation of wealth and jobs.”
A block north of the convention venue at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center about 100 protesters who didn’t share the secretary’s views on public land management gathered in Whitefish’s Depot Park.
The protest, organized by several local and state environmental groups, attracted dozens of local residents carrying signs opposing the national-monument reviews and Zinke’s broader agenda.
Holding a handmade sign that read, “Sec’y Zinke — Stand up for Montana,” Kalispell resident Anne Biby called the former Montana lawmaker’s actions “short sighted,” and said they placed the Treasure State’s renowned natural beauty at risk.
“There is nothing in Montana like the Missouri Breaks and White Cliffs areas, and there just is no reason to minimize our public lands in any way,” Biby said.
Bonnie Rice with the Sierra Club’s Montana chapter drew a mixture of applause and supportive boos as she addressed the protesters, denouncing the Interior Department’s recent moves to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, remove Yellowstone-area grizzly bears from the Endangered Species List and open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration.
Along the sidewalk, a handful of counter-demonstrators carried their own signs praising Zinke’s actions. Jerry O’Neil, a former state legislator from Columbia Falls, said he’s in favor of reducing the Missouri Breaks’ national monument designation.
“As far as I know, they have no reason to lock up as much as they’ve locked up,” he said.
North Fork Preservation Association President Debo Powers, however, called Zinke’s ongoing review an “attack on our national monuments,” and pointing to his professed alignment with the president who developed the designation under the Antiquities Act of 1906.
“Mr. Zinke, you were our congressman in Montana and you were fond of saying you were a ‘Teddy Roosevelt Republican’ — and you lied to us,” Powers, a Polebridge resident, told the crowd. “What I would like to ask you is, ‘What would President Roosevelt think of you right now and what you’re doing as secretary of the Interior? He wouldn’t be pleased.”
The Western Governors’ Association meeting wraps up Wednesday.
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at email@example.com.