Interior pick firmly against fed land transfer, with wiggle room for Alaska

Rep. Ryan Zinke, the nominee for Interior Secretary, greets well-wishers during a break in his Senate hearing. Photo: Liz Ruskin.

President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Interior Department sat for a confirmation hearing today, chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski. She used the opportunity to condemn the Obama administration for its many resource protections in Alaska. Murkowski said the actions amount to trying to safeguard the state from Alaskans.

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“Our current president and (Interior) secretary seem to see us as ‘Alaska: the national park and wildlife refuge, a broad expanse of wilderness with little else of interest or value,’” Murkowski said.

Murkowski asked the nominee, Congressman Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., if he would undertake a review of President Obama’s resource decisions in Alaska, to include “the decisions that specifically prevented the leasing of those lands and those waters for development, and determine whether they can be reversed?”

Zinke said yes.

“The president-elect has said that we want to be energy independent,” Zinke said.

While Murkowski asked for a formal, Alaska-centered review, Zinke’s answer veered toward the general.

“Always, I think we need to review things to makes sure we’re doing it right, because over time the government keeps getting bigger and bigger, the bureaucracy gets larger and larger and we can’t get something done,” Zinke said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., asked Zinke about his commitment to keeping public lands under federal ownership. That was one of Zinke’s campaign promises.

“I want to be clear on this point: I am absolutely against transfer or sale of public land,” Zinke said.

“Good!” Sanders pronounced.

But later, under questioning from Murkowski, Zinke sounded amenable to some transfers of Alaska’s federal land, like giving allotments to Alaska Native veterans of the Vietnam War era who may have missed the filing deadline. He did not sound on board with another bill Alaska’s congressional delegation favors, which would carve out part of the Tongass National Forest to create a state forest. Although Zinke said he was open to state management of federal land.

“There’s a difference between switching title and having the ability to manage,” Zinke said.

Zinc wants to retain government ownership of public lands, but he also favors development on those lands, including oil and gas production. He differs with Trump on climate change. Zinke said he does not think it is a hoax and said he believes it is human-caused, at least in part.

Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, is not predicted to have a tough confirmation battle.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at

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