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 Gov. 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 Gov. 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 Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. But the 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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During a campaign stop in Boise ahead of last spring’s Idaho primary, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, captured the animating sentiment: “Too much land in this country, particularly in the West, is owned by the federal government. It’s not right; it doesn’t make sense. And we need to transfer that land back to the states or, even better, back to the people . . . In my home state of Texas, 2 percent of the state is owned by the federal government, and I gotta tell you, in Texas, we think that’s 2 percent too much.”
In many ways, Zinke is an unlikely pick for Interior. In his short political career, the former Navy SEAL has been much more devoted to foreign affairs and national security than to domestic issues. And he has often seemed less interested in mastering the details of policy than in his cable TV appearances or in moving up the Washington pecking order. (After just 10 months in Congress, he talked about mounting a bid for House speaker and, later, possibly joining the race to become Trump’s running mate.)
But more significantly, Zinke’s record on public lands puts him out of step with the GOP’s ideological warriors. During his time in the Montana legislature, he was known as a moderate and enjoyed a good working relationship with Democrats on issues such as land banking, a conservation strategy of swapping hard- or impossible-to-access public land with areas that are easier to reach. He also played a key role in a local conservation effort in his home town. In Congress, Zinke supported the Land and Water Conservation Fund and repeatedly opposed efforts to sell off public land. He also resigned as a delegate at Republican National Convention over the party platform’s call for transferring land to the states.
These deviations from conservative orthodoxy haven’t gone unnoticed. Scott Christensen of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition expressed optimism over Zinke’s nomination: “While we haven’t seen eye to eye with him on everything, we have seen some areas where he’s able to work with us and support us. That’s one area where we’d like to see him stand strong in the future and continue pushing back against schemes to sell off and transfer public lands in the West.”
Still, some environmentalists will undoubtedly oppose Zinke’s confirmation, at least publicly. He has drawn criticism for his work to fast-track logging projects and bypass litigation from environmental groups. He also supported allowing states to manage small portions of federal land as a pilot project that some conservationists see as nearly indistinguishable from formal transfer to the states.
But the bigger concern for environmentalists is that as a pro-coal, pro-gas enthusiast, Zinke is bad for climate change. Yet even here, it’s hard to imagine that some other Trump appointee would be preferable. Regardless of what may be expressed in news releases, behind the scenes, many environmentalists recognize that Zinke — as a supporter of public land and a mainstream Republican on fossil fuels — is the best they could reasonably hope for under the incoming administration.
In the aftermath of the election and some of Trump’s early personnel moves, one risk for liberals is to fall into a lazy rut of assuming that every action taken by the president-elect is an atrocity. It’s important to distinguish between those Trump actions that really do risk taking public policy in a radical direction or that threaten democratic norms and institutions, and those that could be considered “normal politics,” or what we’d expect if a more conventional Republican — say Jeb Bush or Mitt Romney — were moving into the White House.
That Zinke’s nomination is what passes for good news these days may be an indication of how far right the Republican Party has moved on public lands. But it also reflects that the probable interior secretary is someone many conservationists see as a pragmatist rather than an ideologue, who understands the sacred value many Westerners place on public lands and who, above all, was perhaps the only acceptable option on a disturbing shortlist of candidates. To be sure, liberals would have preferred any of the candidates Hillary Clinton was purportedly eyeing. Yet for those who have come to expect the worst from the Trump administration, Zinke at the Interior Department offers a welcome respite.
Saldin is an associate professor of political science at the University of Montana and the author of “When Bad Policy Makes Good Politics.”