By almost every measure for the incoming Trump administration, Ryan Zinke, the president-elect’s pick to run the U.S. Department of Interior, has the perfect resume.
He’s a former commander in the Navy’s Seal Team Six special-forces branch, which among other things took out Osama bin Laden. He’s the lone congressman from Montana, where the Interior Department figures large because it owns significant swaths of land used for grazing and mining. And Zinke is all for developing and exploiting resources on public lands, earning him a lifetime score of just 3 out of 100 from the League of Conservation Voters.
But for those who still embrace the goals of the Sagebrush Rebellion, a loose coalition of ranchers, miners, drillers, hunters, off-road enthusiasts, libertarians and anti-government die-hards, Zinke is a heretic. The reason is that he is an unshakable foe of selling federal lands or transferring them to the states.
Repeatedly, Zinke has joined Democrats in opposing legislation that would require the department he has been named to head to shed its vast real-estate holdings. In July 2015, he voted for an amendment to block funding of “extra legal ways to transfer federal lands to private owners.” Earlier in the year he voted against a Republican-sponsored budget resolution that would have set up a fund to do the same thing.
As Zinke, 55, explained it at the time, he grew up hunting and fishing in Montana and sees the value in making sure that what’s public stays public. This year he voted to block the sale of a couple of million acres of federal forest land for logging.
Zinke has been so at odds with his party on this point that he resigned from the committee that drafted the Republican Party convention platform because, as usual, it included a passage about selling some of the 640 million acres owned by the federal government.
As was reported when Trump nominated him, Zinke was personally vetted for the Interior post by Donald Trump Jr., an avid hunter and angler. And though you can’t imagine the president-elect himself in a deer stand, on the campaign trail he said he would work to preserve access for hunters to public land.
The confounding thing about the argument for transferring federal land to the states or selling it to private owners is that those who make it might have the most to lose.
States such as Utah, Idaho and Nevada, where the federal government owns a majority of the land, often say they can do a better job of managing the real estate within their borders.
In Utah, for example, legislation adopted in 2012 — and ignored by the federal government — demanding a massive land transfer said the state would benefit because “cumbersome federal rules, regulations, processes, and management policies often prevent development of these resources resulting in diminished revenue to the State and its citizens.”
That actually wouldn’t be hard to do, although ranchers, miners, loggers and others might not like it very much. As a rule, the federal government charges users much less than market rates. The same is true for other uses of federal land: The prices the U.S. government charges are way below market rates. As such, this represents a considerable subsidy to the private sector, particularly in Western states.
Just how big is hard to quantify, partly because federal land ownership is spread among several different agencies. One study estimated that letting cattle graze on federal land cost the U.S. government $261 million a year, while others have placed it as high as $1 billion. The timber industry and hard-rock mining have similar advantages. Miners pay a maximum of $5 an acre for extraction rights under a law adopted in 1872.
Other studies have concluded that the states might rue the day they assumed ownership of federal lands because expenses would outweigh potential sources of revenue. Someone would have to pay for maintaining roads, dams and other infrastructure — not to mention the hefty cost of fighting forest fires or remediating the environmental harm and pollution caused by mining, deforestation and erosion.
If states wind up owning large chunks of what is now federal land, it isn’t hard to imagine a time when legislatures see real-estate holdings as an easy asset to sell for closing a budget gap. Once the land is out of the public domain, it’s gone for good.
There is a lot that conservationists don’t like about Zinke, who supports more extraction and exploitation of the natural resources on federal property. But at least he isn’t on board with getting rid of the land that all Americans should consider part of their national birthright.
James Greiff is an editor for Bloomberg View.