Chronicle column: Montanans are watching, Secretary Zinke

The following was first published in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle as a guest opinion by GYC Executive Director Caroline Byrd. 

What has the power to unite Montanans of all stripes? If a raucous rally in Helena last month is any indication, it’s our state’s spectacular public lands. Hunters, anglers, outfitters, hikers, bikers, and more all rely on access to public lands to experience the very best of what Montana has to offer. One person who will soon play a major role in deciding the future of our cherished public lands is our own Rep. Ryan Zinke.

A good secretary of the interior should know the West and understand the importance of public lands. Growing up outside of Glacier National Park, Rep. Zinke should have a feel for what makes the West so special. And if the secretary-to-be sticks to the statements he made at his confirmation hearing about opposing the transfer or sale of public lands, then he’s certainly starting from a good place. His hero, Teddy Roosevelt, once wrote, “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.” That is a solid guiding vision for the Department of the Interior, and one that countless polls tell us that westerners support.

Beyond the polls, we all love getting outside. It’s who we are and it’s good for us. The great outdoors is the setting for our favorite family memories and adventures. Watching wildlife with our kids, floating cold, clear rivers with friends, and hiking alone through fields of beautiful wildflowers are scenes that play out every day on our public lands. We are so fortunate to be surrounded by healthy, open landscapes that each and every one of us own and have access to.

But, back to our incoming interior secretary. Rep. Zinke is talking the talk. But has he walked the walk and consistently stood up for these shared values? In his first term in the House, he voted against a budget resolution that would have allowed 2 million acres of our public forests to be transferred to the states. Last year when the Republican party platform — for the first time ever — called for the transfer of public lands to the states, he resigned as a delegate to the convention. Rep. Zinke also deserves credit for joining hundreds of local Montana businesses and Sen. Jon Tester in strong, bipartisan opposition to two proposed large-scale gold mines near Yellowstone National Park.

However, Montana’s lone representative has also cast some troubling votes. Most recently, on the first day of the new Congress last month, he voted for a rule change in the House that makes it easier to sell off public lands. And in the last Congress, Rep. Zinke voted “yes” on a bill that would have allowed 4 million acres of public forests to be transferred to states.

This checkered record calls for the millions of westerners who love public lands, especially those of us lucky enough to live in Montana, to keep a close watch on the soon-to-be secretary. Addressing the crowd at the public lands rally in Helena, Simms Fishing Products owner KC Walsh said it well: “If confirmed, we all need to hold him accountable for his public statements.”

In the next phase of his political life, Rep. Zinke will have many opportunities to stand up for western values and to do Teddy Roosevelt proud. We expect him to be a champion for our public lands and opposing short-sighted proposals that sell off our birthright. We look forward to supporting Interior Department actions that are in line with TR’s vision and with our shared love of public lands. Should secretary-nominee Zinke drift away from upholding our treasured lands, we’re prepared to stand with thousands of hunters, anglers, and others to hold his feet to the fire.