WHITEFISH – U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said Tuesday that he won’t recommend any changes in the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.
Citing his “Montana kid” roots and public sentiment in support of the Breaks’ protection, Zinke told reporters at a Whitefish news conference that the area will emerge untouched from an Interior Department review of two-dozen national monuments.
The controversial reassessment was ordered by President Donald Trump, who believes past presidents have misused the Antiquities Act to designate national monuments. The president told Zinke, formerly Montana’s lone U.S. House member, to recommend how 24 of the monuments could be downsized or stripped of their designation.
Zinke was in Whitefish, his hometown, on Tuesday to address the Western Governors Association meeting.
Blocks away, as many as 100 protesters gathered with signs and chants in Depot Park. Their message to Zinke was simple: Keep your promises about public lands.
A handful of residents also gathered at the Bureau of Land Management office in Missoula to deliver more than 2,000 comments collected from across the state urging Zinke to support and protect national monuments.
Zinke addressed public lands and other widespread concerns in his speech to WGA, touching briefly on the need to increase revenue from public lands, the importance of becoming energy independent, and increasing jobs and national security.
He reassured the audience that “public land belongs to all of us.”
Zinke said the Department of the Interior is facing a time of intense reorganization “on a scale of 100 years,” with the intention of integrating state and other organizations into joint decision-making structures.
“We’re still going to keep the Park Service and the Forest Service because there is great value in keeping tradition,” Zinke said. “We are going to look at ways to work better as a government on basis of watersheds and figure out how to be more joint.”
Later during a press conference, Zinke answered questions specifically about national monuments.
While the Upper Missoula River Breaks may survive the Interior Department’s review, Zinke said changes are ahead for Utah’s Bear Ears National Monument, a target of both Trump and that state’s congressional delegation.
Zinc said he plans to reevaluate some borders and management practices at Bears Ears. The antiquities are worth preserving, but not without some more consideration, he said.
The secretary revisited several talking points throughout his talks, including the need to rebuild trust in the West and his own identification as a Teddy Roosevelt politician.
Protester Debo Powers challenged this identification during a speech at Depot Park.
“What would Teddy say about what he’s doing?” she asked. “He wouldn’t be happy.”
Powers, president of the North Fork Preservation Association, was a featured speaker at the protest and spoke about the need to maintain hope during the fight to preserve public lands.
The Sierra Club organized the protest at Depot Park, and dozens of people from the area attended, carrying signs and chanting. Some signs called for protection of public lands and national monuments. Others attacked Zinke’s character.
Gail Fassnacht’s signs urged onlookers to think about her children’s future.
“I thought maybe (Zinke) would see us and keep these kids in mind, because it’s so important for them and their future that we have (public lands),” Fassnacht said.
Protesters walked up and down sidewalks across from the meeting hall and filled out comment cards to send to Zinke.
Three men walking around downtown Whitefish with signs were not part of the protest. Jerry O’Neil, with his cousin and a friend, carried signs reading, “Sec Zinke Thank you for unlocking our federal lands.” O’Neil said he was looking forward to seeing Zinke return “overregulated federal land” to use.
“I would like to see them manage forests,” he said. “I’d like to see it at least be logged.”
Logging is in Zinke’s plan to increase revenue from public lands, as are increases in mining and oil and gas development.