This West Is OUR West

Zinke votes with House GOP on land transfer measure

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January 05, 2017 at 12:59 pm | Daily Inter Lake

Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke voted with other Republicans in the U.S. House on Tuesday to approve a measure widely viewed as a precursor to transferring federal public lands to the states.

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that the party-line vote was part of a larger rules package and changed the way Congress calculates the cost of such a transfer, which would result in a loss of federal revenue generated by those lands. The previous rules would have required that Congress offset the lost revenue, but the change on Tuesday negated that requirement for land transfers, the newspaper reported.

Zinke, who was selected last month as President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of the Interior, has previously bucked his Republican colleagues on the issue, which has broad implications for natural resource and outdoor recreation issues in Montana and other western states.

Last May, his office issued a press release touting his vote in the House Committee on Natural Resources against a bill that would have allowed up to 2 million acres of National Forest lands to be transferred to state ownership. He also stepped down as a delegate to the Republican National Convention last year, in protest of the party platform’s endorsement of such transfers.

Zinke has not commented on the vote, but his spokeswoman said in an email Thursday that his position against selling federal lands has not changed.

In a statement, a House Natural Resources Committee spokeswoman commended the rule change.

“Allowing communities to actually manage and use these lands will generate not only state and local income tax, but also federal income tax revenues,” Molly Block said in the statement. “Unfortunately, current budget practices do not fully recognize these benefits, making it very difficult for non-controversial land transfers between governmental entities for public use and other reasons to happen.”

Conservation groups and Democrats in Montana, however, condemned the congressman’s apparent policy reversal in a flurry of press releases Wednesday.

“You’d think that the Congressman would be on his best behavior going into a job interview, but instead he’s taking steps to once again jeopardize the future of Montana’s outdoor economy,” Montana Democratic Party executive director Nancy Keenan said in a press release. “Montana hunters and anglers won’t forget this vote and we will continue to hold Congressman Zinke accountable as he asks for the nation’s trust in serving as Secretary of the Interior.”

The Montana Wilderness also issued a statement noting Zinke’s self-characterization as a “Roosevelt Republican” and calling the vote a “major attack on Roosevelt’s legacy.”

“This is an absolute affront to Montana’s way of life and to the millions of Americans who hike, hunt, fish and camp on public lands,” Brian Sybert, the organization’s executive director, said in an emailed statement. “These lands belong to all Americans. They’re what make America so great. It’s unimaginable that some in Congress would want to simply give these lands away.”

The other two members of Montana’s congressional delegation also issued statements in response to the vote.

“I continue to strongly oppose the transfer of federal lands to the states while fighting to improve the management of those lands,” stated Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., in a Wednesday press release.

“This vote by the House is an underhanded assault on Montana’s outdoor economy, our hunting heritage, and our way of life,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in an emailed statement. “Public lands belong to all Americans and Congress should be safeguarding them, not clearing the way to auction them off to the highest bidder.”