By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

The Senate on Wednesday voted to confirm Rep. Ryan Zinke to head the Interior Department as President Donald Trump takes steps to boost fossil fuel output on federal lands.

The Senate voted 69 to 31 with several Democrats joining Republicans in support of Zinke, who supported energy development as Montana's one-term congressman. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., supported Zinke.

Montana GOP chairman Jeff Essmann praised Zinke's nomination, saying he was the best pick to stand up for Montana values at the Department of Interior.

“He knows the challenges Montana and other western states face when it comes to responsibly developing natural resources to create high-paying jobs, ensuring that our public lands can be enjoyed by all, and, where necessary, conserving our land under the big sky for this and future generations," Essmann said.

But many Democrats oppose Zinke's support of fossil fuels, including Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate environment committee. Cantwell expressed doubts that Zinke would stand up to Trump to protect the public interest.

Outdoor groups in Montana expressed similar concerns, including Business for Montana's Outdoors. The group has asked Zinke to sign a pledge dedicated to Montana's outdoor values, which included permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“Because our public lands are so critical to Montana jobs and our Montana way of life, we ask that Mr. Zinke fight tooth and nail to retain crucial public lands and water funding which are likely to be threatened by the president’s budget,” said Marne Hayes, the group's executive director.

Zinke emerged as a surprise pick to head the department. He has embraced federal stewardship of public land, diverging from the Republican Party’s official position to sell off land to states.

But as a congressman, he has also fought to increase energy development, a position that has worried conservationists. His position fits with Trump’s efforts to bolster U.S. energy production by scaling back regulation.

"Secretary Zinke has called himself a Roosevelt conservationist on multiple occasions,” said Brian Sybert, executive director of Montana Wilderness Association. “In Montana, living up to that definition will mean keeping public lands in public hands, protecting places as wild and culturally significant as the Badger-Two Medicine, and not attempting to gut or harm the Antiquities Act, a central pillar of Roosevelt's legacy."

Zinke's confirmation will result in a special election in Montana to choose his successor. Gov. Steve Bullock will set the election once Zinke submits his resignation as Montana's lone representative.

Seven Republicans and eight Democrats have indicated their intention to vie for their party’s nomination. Democrats are likely to choose their nominee this weekend and Republicans will do so shortly after.


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