U.S. Interior chief wants smaller monuments, but not at home

BILLINGS, Mont. — U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has closely followed his boss’ playbook, encouraging mining and drilling on public lands and reducing the size of national monuments that President Donald Trump called a “massive land grab” by his Democratic predecessors.

Except, that is, in Montana.

In Zinke’s home state, the former congressman who has long harbored higher political ambitions is recommending Trump create a new national monument out of the forests bordering Glacier National Park, to the disappointment of a company that wants to drill for natural gas there.

A couple hundred miles away, where rocky bluffs line the Missouri River, he decided to leave intact a 590-square-mile (1,528-square-kilometer) monument that for 16 years has stirred the kind of impassioned local opposition that Zinke cited in justifying changes to monuments elsewhere.

And he wants to curb mining along Montana’s border with Yellowstone National Park. That could discourage development of two proposed mines that supporters say would offer higher paying jobs than tourism.

The decision was based on Zinke’s belief that “some places are too precious to mine,” his spokeswoman said last month.

Zinke, a rumored candidate for U.S. Senate in 2018 or governor in 2020, appears to be carving out an exception for Montana from Trump’s agenda to open more public lands to natural resources development. Whether it stems from Montana pride or political ambition in a state where conservation has bipartisan appeal, the results have rankled both sides in the debate over managing millions of acres of public lands in the U.S. West.

“It’s totally favoritism,” said Land Tawney, president of the conservation group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

Tawney is a friend of the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and his group threw its support behind Zinke’s nomination last winter. But he said the Interior secretary’s recommendations to scale back four large monuments in the West, including Bears Ears in Utah, represent a “sellout to industry” that’s putting public land and wildlife at risk. Zinke also called for shrinking two marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean.

“We’re happy he recognizes the importance of the Badger Two-Medicine,” Tawney said, referring to the 203-square-mile (526-square-kilometer) area south of Glacier that Zinke recommends be a monument. “Places that are very similar in fashion, like Bears Ears, he’s not quite protecting. … You can’t talk out of both sides of your mouth.”

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