Senate confirms Montana Rep. Zinke as Interior secretary

March 1, 2017 Updated: March 1, 2017

WASHINGTON—Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke won Senate confirmation Wednesday as President Donald Trump’s Interior secretary, giving him responsibility for overseeing the nation’s 400 million acres of public land, mostly in the West.

The Republican-controlled Senate approved the nomination, 68-31 as 16 Democrats and one independent joined with 51 Republicans to support the choice. Several Democrats from Western states as well as those facing tough re-elections next year, including Montana’s Jon Tester, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted for Zinke.

Trump’s choice to lead Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, cleared a Senate hurdle on a 62-37 vote. Carson’s confirmation was expected later this week.

With Zinke’s approval, the Senate has confirmed 16 out of 22 of Trump’s Cabinet and Cabinet-level nominations.

Zinke, 55, a former Navy SEAL and Montana state senator, resigned as a delegate to the Republican National Convention last year to protest the GOP’s position in favor of land transfers to state or private groups.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry (L) and Housing and Urban Development Secretary-designate Ben Carson applaud on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 28, 2017, before President Donald Trump's address to a joint session of Congress.  (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Energy Secretary Rick Perry (L) and Housing and Urban Development Secretary-designate Ben Carson applaud on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 28, 2017, before President Donald Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Zinke, a Republican in his second term as Montana’s sole House member, told senators at a January hearing that federal land management should be done under a multiple-use model that allows hiking, hunting, fishing and camping along with harvesting timber, mining for coal and drilling for oil and natural gas.

Zinke also pledged to tackle an estimated $12 billion backlog in maintenance and repair at national parks and stand firm against attempts to sell, give away or transfer federal lands.

Senate Energy Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska called Zinke an excellent choice, noting that the fifth-generation Montanan is an avid hunter, fisherman and skier.

“He was born in the West. He lives in the West. He understands it, he understands its people,” Murkowski said.

Zinke also has “firsthand experience in trying to solve” problems faced by the Interior Department and has “shown he understands the need for the department to be a partner of Alaska and our Western states,” Murkowski said.

During his hearing, Zinke rejected Trump’s claim that climate change is a hoax, saying it is indisputable that environmental changes are affecting the world’s temperature and human activity is a major reason.

“I think where there’s debate is what that (human) influence is and what can we do about it,” he said.

Zinke also pledged to work with members of Congress on monument designations, noting the strong opposition to Bears Ears by Utah’s congressional delegation and governor.

“I think the state should have a say on it,” he said.