Gianforte hires former Zinke advisor for DNRC chief
Governor-elect Greg Gianforte last week announced that he’d recruited another employee from the U.S. Department of the Interior to head Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
As director of the DNRC, Amanda Kaster - a former oil and gas policy advisor - will oversee Montana’s state lands, water resources, forests and logging sales and oil and gas development, along with smaller programs such as aquatic invasive species and mine reclamation.
“I campaigned on the promise of responsibly developing our natural resources while simultaneously protecting our environment, and with Amanda’s leadership, we will get this done. I look forward to working with Amanda (Kaster) to eliminate needless permitting delays, protect our environment and create more good-paying Montana jobs,” Gianforte said in a release.
According to the Gianforte release, Kaster, a 31-year-old Pennsylvania native, most recently filled the position of Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management under Interior Secretary David Bernhard. However, it’s difficult to tell how long she filled that role within an agency that saw employees regularly cycle through “acting” positions as others moved on or resigned.
The Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals Management is one of six assistant secretaries that fall under the Interior secretary, and who manage different aspects of the Interior Department. The Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals Management oversees four agencies including the Bureau of Land Management.
Joe Balash was the last confirmed Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals Management, and he resigned unexpectedly in August 2019 after pushing to open oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He was also involved in the push to relocate the BLM headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo.
Since his resignation, the position has remained unfilled. But deputy assistant secretaries have assumed the responsibility in an “acting” capacity without Senate confirmation, including Deputy Assistant Secretary Casey Hammond.
In May 2019, Bernhardt put Hammond temporarily in charge of the BLM before hiring Mountain States Legal Foundation attorney William Perry Pendley in July. It was reportedly Hammond who eliminated “conserving public land for future generations” from the mission of the BLM.
Hammond still serves as the principle deputy assistant secretary, apparently having bypassed yet another deputy assistant secretary, Andrea Travnicek, after Balash left. This year, Travnicek left the deputy assistant secretary position in April to take the reins of North Dakota’s Parks and Recreation Department.
It’s at this point that Kaster likely moved into the role of “acting deputy assistant secretary for Lands and Mineral Management.” She was well positioned, having been the acting BLM Chief of Staff after first joining the Interior Department in 2017 as Ryan Zinke’s advisor before he resigned as Interior Secretary in December 2018.
Prior to that, Kaster had worked as Zinke’s energy and natural resources legislative assistant between 2015 and 2017.
But by October of this year, attorney Gary Lawkowski was carrying the title of deputy assistant secretary for Lands and Mineral Management after leaving the DOI Solicitors office under Daniel Jorjani. So Kaster may have lost the “acting” position at that point.
Prior to working for Zinke, she worked about a year and a half for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank that gets its funding from oil, gas, and other energy companies including BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, the Nuclear Energy Institute, and Shell.
In Gianforte’s release, Alan Olson, Montana Petroleum Association executive director, said he was “delighted” with Kaster’s appointment.
“Ms. Kaster’s experience with the U.S. Department of Interior in natural resource matters will be a great benefit in managing Montana’s School Trust lands and other resource related issues,” Olson said.
But Olson has benefitted from Kaster’s work before, namely when she was working for Interior Sec. Zinke.
In July 2017, Olson asked Kaster to help Jeff Herman, manager of North Dakota-based Petro-Hunt, get four of his oil and gas leases reinstated, according to information acquired by the Western Values Project. Petro-Hunt was a member of the Montana Petroleum Association.
Kaster arranged a call between Olsen and the Acting Secretary for Lands and Minerals, which was likely Katherine McGregor, Bernhardt’s recently confirmed Deputy Secretary. Within a few months, a Federal Register notice showed three of the four leases had been reinstated.
Kaster is married to another former Congressional staffer, Christopher Averill, who now works in Washington, D.C. lobbying for the Boston-based New England Council, a business alliance promoting economic growth in New England.
But Kaster said she is looking forward to her job in Montana.
“I can't wait to get to work ensuring the Treasure State achieves its full potential by responsibly managing and developing its land and water resources and continuing efforts to make the Department responsive for all Montanans,” Kaster said in the release.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.