By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Rep. Ryan Zinke this week voted with House Republicans to change the way Congress calculates the cost of transferring federal lands to the states, a move opponents argue will make it easier for the GOP-held Congress to sell the nation's public lands to the highest bidder.

On its first day in session, the new Congress approved the measure on a largely party line vote of 234-193. The provision was introduced by Rep. Bob Bishop, R-Utah, and drew quick criticism in Montana.

Requests for a comment Wednesday from Zinke, R-Montana, weren't immediately returned.

“Buried in a litany of other measures is language inserted by Congressman Bishop that would make it easier to give away America’s public lands,” said Land Tawney, president of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “If it’s a fight they want, they’ve got one coming – and I’m betting on public lands hunters and anglers.”

Advocates of the move believe federal lands create a burden on surrounding communities, which often lose out on potential tax revenues. Allowing communities to manage adjacent lands would generate additional state and local income taxes while padding federal tax revenues.

But opponents contend that public lands belong to all Americans, not just those living nearby.

“This vote by the House is an underhanded assault on Montana's outdoor economy, our hunting heritage, and our way of life,” said Sen. Jon Tester. “Public lands belong to all Americans, and Congress should be safeguarding them, not clearing the way to auction them off to the highest bidder.”

Zinke, who voted for the measure, has been picked by President-elect Donald Trump to serve as the nation's new Secretary of the Interior – a position that places him in charge of managing the country's national parks.

While Zinke doesn't assume the position until later this month, the Montana Democratic Party accused him of starting off on the wrong foot, and of placing the state's outdoor economy in jeopardy.

“Montana hunters and anglers won’t forget this vote and we will continue to hold Congressman Zinke accountable as he asks for the nation’s trust in serving as Secretary of the Interior,” said Nancy Keenan, the Montana Democratic Party's executive director.

Earlier this year, Zinke voted against the State National Forest Management Act of 2015, which would have permitted up to 2 million acres of public lands owned by the U.S. Forest Service to be transferred to state ownership.

Back then, Zinke said he was against selling off public lands.

“I’m starting to wonder how many times I have to tell these guys in leadership I’m not going to allow Montana’s public lands to be sold or given away,” Zinke said after the vote. “We use our land for hunting, fishing, hiking, and to create jobs. Our outdoor economy is a billion dollar economic engine for the state that creates jobs. The federal government needs to do a much better job of managing our resources, but the sale or transfer of our land is an extreme proposal and I won’t tolerate it.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at