Montana Voices: Zinke must embrace land stewardship

Lake McDonald at dawn, Glacier National Park. (Sherry Devlin/Missoula Current)

By Mark Fix/for Missoula Current

Secretaries of the Interior are called to be public stewards. On behalf of all Americans, they oversee our great national heritage of forests, grasslands, fisheries, national parks, wildlife, waterways, and mineral wealth.

Mark Fix

Congressman Ryan Zinke, if approved for his nomination to that post, will have the opportunity to prove himself in the long line of great stewards that have preceded him. I wish him well, but there is cause for concern.

Taxpayers at risk

During his last term in Congress, Rep. Zinke introduced legislation to reinstate royalty loopholes that allow energy companies to sell publicly-owned coal to themselves, creating a system to dodge legally-required royalty payments to taxpayers and shortchange the American public.

Because half the royalty revenue generated from production of federal minerals goes to the state and to counties, these loopholes hurt the coffers of places like Big Horn and Rosebud Counties, as well as our state treasury and the roads, schools, and emergency services they help fund.

Additionally, a year ago, the current Secretary of the Interior announced a three-year review of the federal coal leasing program in order to ensure that taxpayers receive a fair return on federal coal leases. Federal coal is given away at bargain basement rates, often for less than a dollar per ton, and mismanagement of federal coal leasing has been cited by more than a dozen public and private reports. Unfortunately, Zinke has persisted in opposing this commonsense review of a program in desperate need of reform.

Stewardship goes beyond royalties, of course. It extends to the natural resources that sustain our economy, our livelihoods, and our health: both human health, and the health of our air, water, and soils.

Protecting our streams

Congressman Zinke has been a vocal opponent of the Stream Protection Rule, a long-overdue reform to the federal strip mine law that would protect neighboring landowners and their water from the impacts of mining.

The rule would provide landowners a full and accurate description of the water’s baseline characteristics to really see how that water is affected by mining operations. It would also give state regulators a mechanism to protect the rights of downstream water users. It is estimated that the Stream Protection Rule would improve water quality in hundreds of miles of rivers and streams per year. It’s a shame that Rep. Zinke has opposed it.

Native American treaty rights

Zinke inserted himself into the tribal trust responsibilities of the Army Corps of Engineers in Washington State, where a proposed coal port was under review. The proposed coal export terminal would have been located atop land inhabited by Lummi Tribal villages for 3,500 years and would have placed hundreds of massive coal freighters in the heart of the tribe’s treaty-protected aboriginal fishing banks against their will.

After careful examination of the tribe’s treaty rights, the federal agency in charge suspended further work to permit the coal export facility. But Rep. Zinke introduced legislation attempting to overrule this decision.

Lummi leaders called his proposed legislation a “dangerous precedent for all of Indian Country.” Dealing with Indian country will be a key responsibility for Zinke if he becomes the Interior Secretary.

If he is to succeed as Secretary of the Interior, he will need to learn to represent the interests of all Americans, not just coal companies. As the top public custodian of our country’s natural resources and public lands, he will need to understand the value that Americans put on the fair and wise management of public lands and public resources.

Again, I wish Congressman Zinke well in his potential new role and hope he will make stewardship his highest priority- stewardship of land, air, water, taxpayers, and the sovereign treaty rights of American Indians. That is the path to greatness as Secretary of Interior.

Mark Fix ranches outside of Miles City, Montana, and is a longtime member and Past Chair of Northern Plains Resource Council, a conservation and family-agriculture group based in Billings, Montana.