President-elect Donald Trump's pick to head the U.S. Department of Interior, Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., says he does not believe climate change is a hoax and promises to bring a Teddy Roosevelt-style approach to managing federal public lands.
Zinke made the comments at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday. The congressman and decorated former Navy SEAL commander faced about four hours of questioning.
Zinke's response to a question from independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont on climate change is drawing particular attention because it seems to run counter to what his prospective boss, Trump, has said on the matter.
"I don't believe it's a hoax," Zinke told Sanders. He added: "The climate is changing. Man is an influence. I think where there's debate on it is what that influence is [and] what can we do about it."
Environmentalists have criticized Zinke's record on climate issues since he was elected to Congress in 2014. But many conservation and sportsmen groups have also praised the interior nominee, for his opposition to a Republican-backed plan to transfer ownership of millions of acres of federal public lands to states. That plan has drawn broad opposition in the West especially over concerns that public access to that land could be taken away.
Last year, Zinke resigned his seat on a GOP platform-writing committee when the Republican National Committee included the language calling for the transfer. But earlier this month, the congressman voted with fellow House Republicans for a rule change that could make that transfer easier.
Pressed by Democrats on the committee to explain, Zinke said he wouldn't have voted for it if it had been a stand-alone measure; rather, he noted, it was part of a bigger package of broader changes.
"I want to be clear on this point, I am absolutely against [the] transfer or sale of public land," Zinke said today.
The Department of Interior and its agencies like the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management have combined control of hundreds of millions of acres of public lands, mostly in the West. During the Obama administration, fights over control of federal land boiled over into armed standoffs led by rancher Cliven Bundy and his sons in Nevada and Oregon.
If confirmed, Zinke pledged he would "hit the road" immediately and seek to start cooling those tensions over land use.
"Outside of Washington, D.C., when you start going west, there is a lot of anger; there is a lot of mistrust," he said.
Zinke said one of his top priorities would be to give local land managers and rangers more flexibility in land management decisions. Too often, he said, local decisions are reversed by higher-ups in the agencies back in Washington.
That's a complaint that's long been uttered from those on both sides of the aisle when it comes to federal land decisions on issues including ranching, mining and wilderness protections. And it's one of the biggest challenges facing the new administration with urban and rural America as polarized as ever.
"We all love our public lands, and the duty of the Department of Interior as a secretary is to make sure that we have a broad consensus on what we're doing," Zinke said.
Zinke is a relative political newcomer in Washington and to politics generally. During his short tenure as a state lawmaker in Montana, he developed a reputation as a moderate on some issues. And his repeated nods to the conservation legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt Tuesday seemed to set him apart from the interior nominees of several earlier Republican administrations. It's already clear there could be some friction between an Interior Secretary Zinke and some Republicans in Congress especially when it comes to spending. Zinke hinted at the hearing that one priority in an expected Trump-backed infrastructure bill will be to address a $12 billion backlog in maintenance at national parks.
Senate committee member Mike Lee, R-Utah, also wondered whether the incoming administration would try to nullify President Obama's recent use of the Antiquities Act to designate ancestral tribal lands in Utah and Nevada as protected national monuments. Utah has been a flashpoint in the lands transfer debate, even passing a state law that tries to wrest control of most federal lands there.
Zinke told Lee that there's nothing explicitly in that law that allows a president to authorize rescinding a monument from federal protection.
"I would think that if a president would nullify it, it would get challenged," Zinke said.
He went on to say that he thought the country has benefited greatly from a lot of national monument designations, including in his home state of Montana.
He is expected to be confirmed to the Cabinet post as early as next week.
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Sen. Bernie Sanders as a Democrat from Vermont. Sanders is an independent who caucuses with Democrats.