President-elect Trump nominated U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke of Montana to lead the Department of the Interior, which is responsible for the management and conservation of federal land and natural resources, as well as the administration of programs relating to American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. “He has built one of the strongest track records on championing regulatory relief, forest management, responsible energy development and public land issues,” said President-elect Donald J. Trump. “As a former Navy SEAL, he has incredible leadership skills and an attitude of doing whatever it takes to win. America is the most beautiful country in the world and he is going to help keep it that way with smart management of our federal lands. At the same time, my administration’s goal is to repeal bad regulations and use our natural resources to create jobs and wealth for the American people, and Ryan will explore every possibility for how we can safely and responsibly do that.”
Accepting the nomination, Representative Zinke stated, “I will work tirelessly to ensure our public lands are managed and preserved in a way that benefits everyone for generations to come. Most important, our sovereign Indian Nations and territories must have the respect and freedom they deserve.” News of Zinke’s nomination was welcomed by some leaders in Indian Country, including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council who congratulated the Congressman and stated, “his personal focus on local control and less Washington bureaucracy is consistent with tribal self-governance and we look forward to working with him on common goals.”
Despite serving only one term in Congress, Representative Zinke built a solid record on tribal issues. In fact, the very first bill sponsored by the Congressman was the Little Shell Restoration Act, which would restore federal recognition to the Tribe. Although the bill was not enacted, Representative Zinke’s tireless efforts to advance the bill won him an endorsement from the Tribe’s chairman. “The Congressman has shown his commitment to tribal issues, federal lands, and wildlife and we hope he continues that when he becomes Secretary of the Interior,” said Chairman Gerald Gray of the Little Shell Tribe.
Congressman Zinke recently achieved a major legislative victory when his Blackfeet Water Rights Settlement Act was enacted as part of the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act. The Blackfeet provision of the bill authorizes approximately $420 million to implement the water rights compact between the Tribe, the State of Montana and the United States. Upon passage of the bill, Representative Zinke stated, “I’m incredibly proud and humbled to work with our Senators and the Tribe to deliver this historic victory for the Blackfeet Nation. The Blackfeet are warriors and they have given up so much during this long process. Water is more than a drinking source to the Blackfeet, it’s their life source and we must respect and honor their culture and rights.”
Other tribal legislation championed by Representative Zinke sought to allow tribes greater authority over their natural resources, especially coal on the Crow Reservation. The Certainty for States and Tribes Act, which would reestablish the Royalty Policy Committee to advise Interior as it formulates policies and regulations regarding mineral production on federal and tribal land, was introduced in response to the Obama Administration’s final regulations related to the valuation and revenue collection process for coal, oil and gas production on federal and tribal lands. This regulation is likely to be one of the “bad regulations” the incoming Trump Administration will seek to repeal. Further, Congressman Zinke introduced a bill which would make the Indian Coal Production Tax Credit permanent. “We want to create as few economic burdens as possible, especially since tribal lands are subject to greater regulatory hurdles compared to private, state, or federal projects. Making the tax credit permanent will empower tribal governments by promoting economic and social growth. Coal-producing tribes, such as the Crow Nation, will have a greater capacity to create jobs and invest in critical projects like infrastructure and education.”
Representative Zinke also cosponsored several tribal bills, including the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act. “This is about sovereignty, opportunity and respect. The federal government already saddles our tribes with burdensome regulations that hamper their ability to achieve the same goals of prosperity and success that we all aspire to. Considering the fact that the NLRB notoriously overreaches in the private sector, imagine what damage they would do to Montana’s tribes,” said Zinke. In addition, he cosponsored the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Reauthorization Act; the PROTECT Patrimony Resolution; and the American Indian Trust Responsibility Review Act.
Montana is home to seven federally recognized tribes, as well as the state-recognized Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa. Representative Zinke was adopted as a member of the Assiniboine Sioux Tribe at the Fort Peck Reservation in Northeast Montana by the family of a U.S. Navy Seal whose son was killed in 2006. Additional information on Representative Zinke’s relationship with Indian tribes can be found here.
His nomination will be considered by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources early next Congress. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is expected to chair the Committee, while Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, the former Chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, has been chosen to serve as the Ranking Member. At this point, Representative Zinke is expected to be easily confirmed by the Senate.