It’s looking like Donald Trump is going to offer Ryan Zinke, the Montana congressman in his first term in the House of Representatives, a position in his cabinet, as Secretary of the Interior. An ex-Navy SEAL, Zinke has campaigned for the president-elect since May, and visited Trump Tower last Monday. He is, at first blush, the first cabinet pick who doesn’t leave a trail of industrial waste everywhere he goes—which is somewhat surprising, given Trump’s affinity thus far for corporate stooges. So what qualifies Big Sky Country’s single U.S. representative to run the United States’ public lands? Well, apparently, he and Donald Trump Jr. have bonded over their shared love of hunting. “Everything we know about Don Jr. is that he is a believer in the value of public lands,” Aaron Weiss, a spokesman for the Center for Western Priorities, told me. “And we know that Donald Trump listens to his kids.”
Under the Obama administration, public lands have become something of a flashpoint and rallying cry for anti-government extremists of many different stripes. In April, House Democrats requested that the full House Natural Resources Committee conduct an investigation into the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. “I like him, I like his spirit, his spunk,” Donald Trump said of the militants’ leader, Ammon Bundy. “I respect him.” Republicans declined to participate, and over the summer Democrats held an informal hearing on “violent extremism on America’s public lands.”
The federal government owns nearly half of all land in the American West, some of which is administered by the Agriculture Department’s United States Forest Service, but the overwhelming majority of which—three-quarters of all public lands—is managed by the Department of the Interior. (In some states, like Oregon, Utah, and Nevada, the government actually owns the majority of all land.) The Bureau of Land Management alone controls 247 million acres, which it can lease to ranchers or mining or drilling companies. The festering resentment produced by this dynamic has led to a number of violent confrontations in recent history, as was the case with the Sagebrush Rebellion of the ‘70s and ‘80s and, in more recent memory, the armed standoffs with federal agents provoked by the aforementioned Bundy family that Donald Trump thought was so spunky in Nevada in 2014 and Oregon earlier this year.
It has also led to the more mainstream “land transfer” movement—allied with the militias and Patriots who take potshots at Bureau of Land Management officials, but more conventionally political. In recent years, generic organizations with names that are easily reduced to anodyne-sounding acronyms like the American Lands Council (ALC), the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and Federalism in Action (FIA), have been pressing legislators at all levels to pass legislation that transfers control of public lands from federal to state control. Unfortunately, western states cannot afford to own the land; if they did, they would inevitably be forced to either lease or sell large swathes of that land to private businesses.
This is the crux of the issue: The federal government controls an enormous amount of land that would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars—possibly even billions—to businesses large and small that would prefer not to have to deal with taxes or pesky environmental regulations. All three primary organizations supporting the land transfer movement—ALC, ALEC, and FIA—have benefited from the largesse of the right-wing industrialist Koch brothers and their powerful donor network. Organizations like these are the carrot to the militia movement’s stick.
Congressman Zinke, for his part, has been an outspoken defender of public lands and keeping them in public ownership, with some exceptions. “Zinke seems to be okay on some conservation issues,” Matt Lee-Ashley, director of public lands at the Center for American Progress, told me. “But he’s also a supporter of Big Oil and Big Coal, especially since coming to Congress. He’s also done a flip-flop on climate change.” Since 2013, Zinke has raised at least $423,000 from energy industries, including at least $345,000 from the oil and gas industries. “That kind of money goes a very long way in Montana,” Weiss, the Western Priorities spokesman said—the point being that, now that he doesn’t need to get elected, there is some question about whether he will actually stick to his stated principles. “The confirmation hearings will be very illuminating,” Weiss added.
Zinke’s views on energy, at first glance, seem to be very much in line with Oklahoma attorney general and incoming Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt. “We should expect a very aggressive, pro-coal, pro-oil approach at the Interior Department as well as at the EPA,” Lee-Ashley advised. “Although that may also mean that Zinke might not pursue the most radical parts of the GOP platform: land sales.” In fact, Zinke resigned as a delegate to the Republican National Convention over the party’s inclusion in its platform of a provision demanding that Congress pass legislation requiring the government “to convey certain federally controlled public lands to the states,” although he still spoke on the first night of the convention.
“We should expect a very aggressive effort to undo rules and standards that cut methane and gas production, prescribe environmental protections for fracking, energy reforms on public lands and oceans. Even safety changes passed after Deepwater Horizon are potentially eligible to be overturned—it’s going to be a full-scale regulatory attack,” Lee-Ashley continued. “The Interior Secretary has a lot of discretion about where to allow extractive uses.”
“It’s going to be an explicitly pro-corporate agenda, rather than responsive to the militias and the far right that has been most vocal about transferring lands,” he added. “The Kochs and the ExxonMobils of the world should be very happy.”
Jennifer Fielder, who became CEO of the American Lands Council, the leading light of the land transfer movement, earlier this year, conceded that while there was “some disagreement” with Zinke on matters of conservation, “We have a lot in common.” Fielder, a Montana state senator, told me that she hopes Zinke will run the Interior Department in a way that balances protection with uses that promote economic prosperity, “allowing some of the resources to be used in a way that is environmentally responsible.”
Asked what those uses might be, Fielder referred to managing timber more effectively, as well as “mineral and energy exploration and development.” She added: “I’m hoping that it’s mostly not extractive industries. We need to be good stewards of the land.” (Maybe, although ALC did celebrate Pruitt’s EPA appointment.) “Under the Obama administration, we’re seeing a greater and greater stranglehold on public lands,” Fielder said. She lamented her perception of Washington, D.C.’s lack of appreciation for what managing public lands actually requires: “If the lands were being well managed and well cared for you wouldn’t see this [land transfer] movement.” The feds, she said, don’t understand how to take care of public lands in a way that allows them to thrive. “If you don’t tend to your garden, it’s gonna go to heck.”
All this said, though, at best, organizations like the American Lands Council offer poor, rural municipalities the delusion of restoring pride and prosperity to their communities; at worst, they’re run by snake-oil salesmen operating on behalf of inconceivably wealthy oligarchs who see no beauty in nature but only value to be extracted.
Founded in 2012, the ALC is funded largely by memberships paid for by local and county governments—so, using tax-payer dollars—who are tempted by co-founder and Utah state representative Ken Ivory’s promises about how transferring public lands to state control will bring wealth for all. (The ALC has also taken money from the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity.) In a 2015 report on American anti-government extremism, the Center for Western Priorities described Ivory as “the highly effective bridge between the extreme and the mainstream.” In January, the Oregon chapter of the lobbying organization was caught posting a video to Facebook that was apparently identical to one produced by Ammon Bundy, accusing Bureau of Land Management employees of committing arson.
Ivory has not been able to deliver on his promises, however: No legislation that actually requires the transfer of public lands to the states has yet been passed. The organization’s most recent tax returns, for 2014, show that the organization’s total revenues were nearly $319,00; of that, almost $260,000 were membership dues from local municipalities. Almost half of ALC’s total expenses went to salaries for Ivory himself ($135,000 in 2014, or $40,000 more than it had been the year prior) and his wife Rebecca ($18,077).
Fielder took over the ALC earlier this year after co-founder Ken Ivory, a Utah state representative, left to run South Carolina-based group Federalism In Action’s “Free the Lands” project—a collaboration between FIA and the American Lands Council Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization affiliated with the ALC 501(c)4. Federalism In Action itself is the product of two more mind-numbingly-named groups, ThinkProgress reported earlier this year: the State Policy Network and State Budget Solutions.
Because FIA is a new organization, its funding sources are not yet public. However, according to IRS filings, State Budget Solutions received money through the Donors Capital Fund, an organization known for cloaking the sources of funding which it distributes, and is sometimes referred to as a Koch “ATM”. The SBS leadership recently joined [the Koch-backed bill mill American Legislative Exchange Council] and Ken Ivory is listed as one of SBS’s senior policy fellows. The group “works to make its vision … a reality … through the project Federalism In Action.”
How these dynamics will play out in Trump’s America obviously remains to be seen, and ultimately if the fossil fuel industry gets unrestricted and unregulated access to public lands the (possibly catastrophic) effect will be the same. At least as terrifying as the long-term environmental impact, though, is the prospect of armed, anti-government militants realizing that the conservative donor class and mainstream Republicans never really cared about the land transfer movement in the first place, that they will move in and extract whatever value they possibly can from the American west, leaving behind a ravaged and dying hellscape that will make the Gulf Coast look like paradise. Or maybe Trump’s love for his son will be stronger than the influence of people like the Koch brothers.
Zinke’s office did not return a request for comment.