WASHINGTON — Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, the nominee to head the Interior Department, drew a warm reception at his Senate hearing Tuesday as he peppered chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, with repeated promises to work with her on Alaska-centric issues.
Murkowski chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and consequently controls the Senate end of the nomination process for the incoming Interior secretary. She and others in Alaska’s congressional delegation met prior to the hearing to make sure Zinke knew what they wanted out of the new department head.
Zinke made clear in testimony that Murkowski and her staff offered defined priorities for the one-term lawmaker and former Navy SEAL: peeling back restrictions on drilling and forestry; putting the state in charge of fish and game subsistence regulations; and building an emergency access road out of the remote community of King Cove.
And he got the message.
“So my job, No. 1 job, is to restore trust,” Zinke said in the hearing. He said the current administration had shut out locals in much of the land-management decision-making. “Alaska is different, and I recognize that,” Zinke said, noting that he has spent time in Alaska — including Kodiak and the Interior — during his military career.
Zinke said he’d revisit many of the regulations and decisions made by the outgoing Obama administration, and would help the delegation further efforts to provide additional land allotments to Native Vietnam War veterans.
“I understand that, while you may not have worked that much on subsistence issues, given the importance of this issue to Alaska, I need to have your commitment for a formal review with the Park Service and with Fish and Wildlife Service on their regulations and to work with the state of Alaska to get us to a better place, when it comes to an approach to the fish and game management decisions within the state,” Murkowski said.
Zinke said he was looking forward to reviewing wildlife management regulations, and to working on speeding up permits for drilling and other resource production in Alaska.
“So, our permitting process is broke. It is somewhat arbitrary. And I do think we need to focus on it,” Zinke said. However, he added he won’t sidestep federal environmental reviews.
Murkowski ended the hourslong hearing as she has so many with current Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in recent years — by asking about building a road out of King Cove to transport residents having medical emergencies when air travel is unsafe.
“The fine people of King Cove have been fighting this fight for over three decades. They have been let down repeatedly by their federal government,” Murkowski said. “They do not trust their federal government because they have been told there is higher value to the animals and the birds than there is to their human life.”
“You have my absolute commitment that I will restore trust and work with you on this issue, because it’s important,” Zinke said. “I didn’t know where King Cove was before I was nominated for the job. I know where it is now.”