By Miranda Green and Timothy Cama - 12/18/18
The likely contenders have experience on congressional committees overseeing the Interior Department or hail from Western states, an important factor considering Interior's outsized influence in the West.
Trump's eventual pick will need to go through the Senate confirmation process.
Here are some of the most talked-about contenders.
Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt
Bernhardt had long been considered a shoo-in for secretary. But in announcing Zinke’s exit, Trump didn’t say the deputy secretary would be in charge of the agency and its 70,000 employees. Still, he will become acting secretary until Zinke's replacement is nominated and then confirmed by the Senate.
Bernhardt worked at Interior in various capacities, including solicitor, during the George W. Bush administration. He has had multiple stints at at the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, representing clients with business before Interior.
In his current role at Interior, Bernhardt has taken the lead on major initiatives like efforts to ease Endangered Species Act compliance, reduce protections for the greater sage grouse, open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas drilling and direct more water to farmers in the West.
“Bernhardt will be a strong leader,” said Ann Navarro, a partner at Bracewell LLP, a law firm and lobbying shop. “He’s an extremely hard worker and knows the agency’s mission. He also understands how the agency functions and is well-regarded among the agency staff, which is essential to successfully lead the agency.”
He also strikes fear in environmentalists.
“We cannot allow a lobbyist like David Bernhardt to transform our public lands and waters into oil and gas production zones when we have basically a decade left to avoid climate catastrophe,” Janet Redman, climate director for Greenpeace USA, said in a statement.
If Trump prefers to put a politician at the helm, Bernhardt would likely stay in his post to smooth the transition and to maintain the policy focus.
“It may benefit the president’s agenda to appoint someone else in that role so Bernhardt can keep the agenda on track,” said Dan Eberhart, CEO of oil services firm Canary LLC and a major Republican donor.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah)
Unlike other politicians in contention for the Interior post, Bishop isn’t leaving his current job. But the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee is getting a demotion and becoming its ranking member starting next month since the GOP lost its House majority in the November midterm elections.
Bishop’s main qualification is that he has served for years on the Natural Resources panel, which oversees Interior, and has wielded the chairman's gavel for the past four years. He’s worked closely with Zinke to reduce national monuments and ease endangered species protections. Before that, he furiously fought the Obama administration’s policies.
When asked whether he would be interested in the job, Bishop’s spokeswoman, Kristina Baum, said he “has an interest in the opportunity to pursue the Trump administration’s continued leadership on energy dominance, reorganization of [the Bureau of Land Management], and access to public lands.”
She declined to elaborate.
Bishop has previously said that he does not plan to run for reelection in 2020 and will retire at the end of the 116th Congress.
Sen. Dean Heller (Nev.)
Heller hails from a state with a high concentration of federal land, managed by numerous agencies within Interior. He lost a competitive reelection bid last month to Rep. Jacky Rosen (D), making him the only GOP senator to fall short on Election Day this cycle.
The Nevada Independent reported that Heller is very interested in the Interior job and that Trump is seriously considering him.
But Heller may lack a key qualification Trump has sought in his Cabinet members: loyalty to him.
During the 2016 presidential race, Heller made disparaging remarks about Trump, saying he was “vehemently opposed” to the real estate mogul. But since Trump took office, the two have grown more friendly. Both Trump and his elder daughter — White House adviser Ivanka Trump — campaigned for Heller in his failed reelection bid.
Rep. Raúl Labrador (Idaho)
Labrador is another contender striving for the Interior post, according to a source close to the congressman. The Idaho Republican, who is retiring from Congress next month, met with Trump on Saturday and has been in touch with his aides about the position, the source said.
The source described Labrador as “uniquely qualified.”
The Idaho Republican, who was born in Puerto Rico, has served for nine years on the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the Interior Department.
If nominated and confirmed, he would be the first person born in one of the insular territories of the U.S. to serve as Interior secretary.
Interior oversees the governing of most U.S. territories, but not Puerto Rico.
Labrador has at times had an icy relationship with Trump. In March 2017, the congressman got in a Twitter altercation with the president, who had blasted the House Freedom Caucus for not getting on board with an ObamaCare reform package.
"The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast. We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!" Trump wrote.
Labrador responded: "Freedom Caucus stood with u when others ran. Remember who your real friends are. We're trying to help u succeed."
Trump declined to endorse Labrador in his bid for Idaho governor this year. Labrador lost in the Republican primary.
Former Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.)
Lummis is openly vying for the spot.
“Yes, it is a position I'm interested in,” she told The Hill on Monday.
The Wyoming Republican, who retired from the House in 2017 after deciding not to seek reelection, first interviewed for the post last year before Trump picked Zinke.
Lummis told The Hill that if chosen for the role she would focus on forest management and wildfire controls.
“I have always prioritized natural resources policy," she said, adding that action needs to be taken to address "these catastrophic wildfires we've seen in California and elsewhere."
“Much more needs to be done to enhance the ability of the land to resist and fight catastrophic wildfire,” she added.
The former congresswoman said she has not met with the president about the position but has been in touch with White House staff. She said Zinke achieved a lot in his tenure, but now it’s time to move the focus.
“There are things we have to do at the National Park Service. When I was on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, there had been nearly decades of neglect of sexual harassment at the National Park Service,” she said.
“I would love to be at Interior to work with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and incoming Chairman Elijah Cummings to make sure that issue is addressed,” she said, referring to the Maryland Democrat.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R)
Two sources familiar with the selection process said Otter, Idaho's outgoing governor, is one of the leading candidates Trump is considering.
Otter has been governor of the Gem State for 12 years and is retiring in January. He previously served in Congress and as lieutenant governor.
As governor, Otter has frequently worked with Interior since the federal government owns more than 60 percent of the state’s land, the second highest of any state.
He’s a harsh critic of the Endangered Species Act, and Interior is working to overhaul its enforcement of the decades-old law.
Otter has routinely dealt with public land issues, including a signature good neighbor agreement that allows Idaho to work with the National Forest Service to expand the agency's capacity to work on forest health.
But one area where he has little experience is with oil and gas. Idaho lacks notable fossil fuel developments, meaning the governor hasn't worked much with extraction policies.
The Trump administration under Zinke focused heavily on increasing drilling on public lands and offshore as a way to grow America's energy independence — a policy strongly favored by Trump.
Otter’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment about his interest in the position.