Letters from the West

Like role model Teddy Roosevelt, Interior nominee Zinke wants to look 100 years ahead

In rural communities across Idaho where Donald Trump won big, there is hope and excitement that after he is sworn in as president Friday, he will bring back in some fashion the resource jobs those communities have lost.

Idaho farmers and ranchers have had a hard few years with low prices and they hope they can get relief from red tape they see as impediments to their profit margins. Miners in towns such as Challis and loggers in Idaho City and Emmett hope to see economic conditions and federal land rules change so that they can turn the fruits of the earth into raw materials, jobs and prosperity.

Many urban Idahoans have watched the transition with more foreboding than faith in the new administration. They have worried that despite Trump’s pronouncements on keeping public land under federal control, he might follow the lead of House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and push for transfer of federal lands to the states, or worse.

Interior secretary nominee Ryan Zinke, the retired Navy Seal who represents Montana in Congress, spoke to both groups during his confirmation hearing Tuesday.

He alleviated the fears of public land-loving hunters, anglers, hikers and snowmobilers. He doesn’t support transferring public lands, period.

He spoke from experience of the frustrations of rural residents who have clashed with federal mandates on everything from sage grouse to water quality.

“I fully recognize there is distrust, anger and even hatred against some federal management policies,” Zinke said.

He foreshadowed that the Trump administration’s infrastructure program will have projects in rural America, including dams and other water storage measures. He made eliminating the $12.5 billion backlog for projects in national parks and monuments such as Craters of the Moon one of his top three priorities.

Most of the news reports focused on his statements recognizing the human causes of climate change. More important was the time frame Zinke said he will embrace as he attempts to lead 70,000 people and manage millions of acres of habitat, open space, minerals and water.

His role model is Theodore Roosevelt, also a former military officer, who acted boldly as president to protect, preserve and develop the West 100 years ago. Americans universally cherish the results, Zinke said.

The balance between today and tomorrow is always a policymakers’ biggest challenge. For Zinke, managing today must be done “so my granddaughters’ children can look back and say we did it right.”

So he may be looking for ways to help our rural communities and our national economy benefit from our public estate today and weather the changes it faces from global warming. (Federal scientists said Wednesday that 2016 was the planet’s hottest year yet recorded). But it should be hard for him to go along with the changes in the federal Endangered Species Act that some in Congress are pushing.

The idea from some congressional critics that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would not add any new species to the endangered list unless another is removed would not pass the 100-years test. And at Tuesday’s hearing, he made a strong commitment to rely on objective science from the department’s professionals to make those kind of decisions.

“The decisions are better at the front line if you empower your people to do them,” he said.

He could look for direction to John Turner, the Wyoming rancher who served as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director under George H. W. Bush. Turner used to talk about how his grandfather taught him to save old machine parts because they lived a long way from the hardware store.

Turner used the same case for protecting biological diversity. “You have to save all the parts,” Turner said.

Zinke makes a prediction that rural communities that are looking backward for guidance for what they want in the future should build their own paths forward.

The way he hopes to reconcile the conflicts between wise use and preservation that the Roosevelt model entails is through collaboration that brings all parties to the table. He told Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden that “you have to reward” the people who get together to solve problems.

Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch, who sits on the committee vetting Zinke, talked about his disappointment with the decisions made by the Obama administration on sage grouse.

“I’m encouraged by what I hear today,” Risch said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker