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Hunters Sour On Trump's Interior Secretary Over Public Lands Review

Sep 6, 2017
Originally published on September 6, 2017 2:58 pm

Hunters, fishermen and other sportsmen had high expectations when Ryan Zinke was tapped to be President Trump's interior secretary, in part because of his promise to bring a balanced, Teddy Roosevelt-style vision to managing public lands.

But the former Republican congressman from Montana is now the target of a critical ad campaign by one of those groups, a symptom of eroding support among a deep-pocketed faction that has become increasingly influential.

Zinke "definitely likes to espouse the ideals of Teddy Roosevelt," says John Sullivan, chairman of the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, who is featured in the ad. "He's not living up to them now."

In particular, the sportsmen are upset by Zinke's handling of a controversial review of protected national monuments and the scope of restrictions on how they are used. The review covers 27 protected monuments that are larger than 100,000 acres.

The secretary is not expected to recommend the elimination of any of the monuments. But a handful are slated to be shrunk in size, and the sportsmen say that reducing their boundaries means potentially more land for development and less for hunters.

Sullivan says as a congressman, Zinke was a champion for hunter access, even if it meant bucking his own party.

"He told us he'd do the same thing, before his promotion," Sullivan told NPR. "He's reversed that; we feel like he's not listening to us."

The ad campaign is significant because sportsmen's groups like Sullivan's have become a political force on public lands lately. They have mobilized, sometimes literally in camouflage, to beat back high-profile bills in statehouses and in Congress that they see as restricting access to public lands.

Their members tend to cut across the political spectrum and sometimes draw unlikely alliances with more traditional environmental groups.

The job of interior secretaries is inherently challenging because they're in charge of so much land; they need to balance a long list of interests, and criticism routinely comes from all sides. But the politics for Zinke in this case are especially tricky.

A lot of Trump's base views any restrictions on land use, like monuments, as federal overreach. Mining companies and other industries seek more access to public lands in many Western states and believe the Obama administration was too restrictive.

But Zinke can't afford to ignore the sportsmen. Among the higher-profile members of the groups is the president's son Donald Trump Jr. He is an avid big-game hunter who said often on the campaign trail that wild areas should be protected to preserve access for sportsmen.

Trump Jr. is closely allied with several sportsmen's lobbying groups that pushed for Zinke to become interior secretary, including Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the Boone and Crockett Club. Trump Jr is now helping run the family's business and has no official position in the White House.

In a statement, Zinke's spokeswoman called the sportsmen's ad campaigns misleading. Some of the secretary's backers also think the controversy around the monument review is overblown.

The secretary made his views known this summer as he crisscrossed the West touring large tracts of protected public land like the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument in southern Oregon. It was designated by President Bill Clinton and expanded by President Barack Obama, and the Trump administration is considering shrinking it.

"I'm making sure that people have a voice," Zinke said in Oregon. "That means the ranchers, the timber guys, what are their concerns? We want to make sure that we look out as Roosevelt did a hundred years ago, to make sure we have in place the right policies so that our experience in public lands remains."

The concerns about Zinke are not unanimous across the sportsmen's clubs.

By executive order, the Obama administration protected more than 4 million acres of new land as national monuments in the West alone. And Paul Phillips, a board member of the Montana-based Boone and Crockett Club, points out that some don't have management plans that necessarily guarantee hunting access.

"What are we afraid of? That's what I would ask to begin with," said Phillips, whose group was founded in 1887 by Teddy Roosevelt. "Having Secretary Zinke step in and look at this when there's been such a dramatic increase in such a short period of time, really makes sense to us."

The Boone and Crockett Club also counts Trump Jr. as one of its board members.

It's unclear what the political fallout could be once the review is expected to be finalized later this year. But should the administration move ambitiously to shrink the monuments, everyone is predicting a drawn-out legal battle.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hunters, anglers and other sportsmen had high expectations when Ryan Zinke was nominated to be President Trump's interior secretary. That's because Zinke pledged to bring a Teddy Roosevelt-style vision of conserving access to U.S. public lands for hunting and other recreation. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports that some recent developments are causing their support to erode.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Secretary Zinke crisscrossed the West this summer, touring large tracts of protected public land like the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument in southern Oregon. It was designated by President Clinton and expanded by President Obama. Then Zinke and the Trump administration considered shrinking it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN ZINKE: And I'm making sure that people have a voice. That means the ranchers today. What are their concerns? What are the timber guys' - what are their concerns?

SIEGLER: Zinke says this a lot when he's talking about his review of the size of national monuments and the scope of their restrictions. But he also frequently gives reassurances to the conservation community.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZINKE: We want to make sure that we look out, as Roosevelt did a hundred years ago - look out in the future to make sure we have in place right policies so our experience in our public lands remains.

SIEGLER: Now, interior secretaries almost always get criticized from one side or the other or sometimes all sides because they're in charge of so much land. But the politics for Zinke here are especially tricky. A lot of President Trump's base views any restrictions on land use, like national monuments, as federal overreach.

But then you've got the president's son, Donald Trump Jr. He's an avid big-game hunter who said often on the campaign trail that wild areas should be protected to preserve access for sportsmen. Trump Jr. is closely aligned with several sportsmen's lobbying groups who pushed for Zinke to become interior secretary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What happened to Ryan Zinke?

SIEGLER: Now one of them is running this ad targeting the secretary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Stand up...

JOHN SULLIVAN: Stand up.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...For all our public lands.

SULLIVAN: Just like Theodore Roosevelt would.

He definitely likes to espouse the ideals of Teddy Roosevelt. And he's not living up to them now.

SIEGLER: This is John Sullivan of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, who's in that ad. A 10-minute drive from his group's Montana headquarters, and we're standing on federal public land next to a trout stream. Deep-pocketed sportsmen's groups have become more of a political force lately, mobilizing, sometimes literally, in camo, lobbying to beat back high-profile efforts to restrict access to public lands. John Sullivan says as a congressman, Zinke was a champion for hunter access even if it meant bucking his own party.

SULLIVAN: He told us he'd do the same thing before his promotion, and he's kind of reversed that. I feel like he's not listening to us. Threatening those public lands threatens who I am.

SIEGLER: A lot of people's identity in the West is intricately tied to public lands. Secretary Zinke often acknowledges this. And in a statement, his spokesperson called the sportsmen ad campaigns misleading. And some of the secretary's backers think the controversy is overblown.

PAUL PHILLIPS: What are we afraid of? That's what I would ask to begin with.

SIEGLER: Paul Phillips is on the board of the Boone and Crockett Club, which was founded by Teddy Roosevelt in 1887 and, by executive order of the Obama administration, protected more than 4 million acres of new land as national monuments in the West alone. And Phillips points out that some don't have management plans that guarantee hunting access.

PHILLIPS: So having Secretary Zinke step in and look at this when there's been such a dramatic increase in such a short period of time really makes sense to us.

SIEGLER: The stakes here are high. With scores of acres of protected public lands in question, sportsmen and other conservation groups are watching the secretary closely. Some groups are already threatening lawsuits if the administration moves ahead with shrinking some of the national monuments. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.