On December 15, 2016, Donald Trump announced he would nominate Ryan Keith Zinke, a retired Navy SEAL and the Republican congressman representing Montana's at-large district, for Secretary of the Interior. Zinke's nomination to head the Department of the Interior brought his positions on two issues in particular into focus: climate change and the transfer of federal land to states. 

Zinke and Climate Change

On the first issue, the 55-year-old Zinke's position is difficult to define. In 2010 he joined 1,209 other state legislators in signing a letter urging Barack Obama and congressional leaders to act on climate change. The letter called the effort to develop clean energy and combat climate change "America's new space race." It added climate change was a danger to national security: "Our nation's most respected military leaders recognize that climate change is a threat multiplier for instability in the most volatile regions of the world."

When he was running for Montana’s House seat in 2014, however, he was less sure, stating climate change was "not a hoax, but it's not proven science either." 

Environmental Issues Legislative Record

His legislative record on environmental issues is not clear-cut either. He has voted several times to preserve the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which puts offshore oil and gas royalties to use in state and federal conservation efforts. Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, recognizes this aspect of Zinke’s record, but told the New York Times in December that Zinke "has prioritized the development of oil, gas and other resources over the protection of clean water and air, and wildlife" and "advocated for state control of energy development on federal lands, a move that threatens our national parks." 

Trump campaigned to "open onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands, eliminate moratorium on coal leasing, and open shale energy deposits."

Transfer of Federal Land to States

On the related issue of federal land in the west—where Washington controls 47% of territory, compared to 4% east of the Mississippi—Zinke breaks with Republicans in saying it should remain in federal hands. The issue led to two high-profile standoffs between ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), one in Nevada in 2014 and one in Oregon in 2016. In June, 2016 he called the transfer of federal land to states "an extreme proposal."

Zinke was born in Bozeman, Montana and grew up in Whitefish. He earned a football scholarship to the University of Oregon in Eugene, where he received a B.S. in geology in 1984. Two years later he joined the Navy SEALs, where he served for a time on Seal Team Six, the unit that killed Osama bin Laden after Zinke's retirement from the team in 2008. Misreporting around $200 worth of travel expenses in the late 1990s may have prevented Zinke from rising further in the ranks, though the same report referring to his "lapses in judgment" called him "dynamic, decisive, intelligent" and said he "excels at the most complex taskings and assignments."

As with several of Trump's other cabinet picks, Zinke served in Iraq, though a retired Army general told the New York Times in January that Zinke's claim to have commanded a 3,500-strong Special Operations force in 2004 "might be a stretch." 

Want to learn how to invest?

Get a free 10 week email series that will teach you how to start investing.

Delivered twice a week, straight to your inbox.