Zinke says Democrats are holding Interior nominees ‘hostage’

Foreground image derives from an AP Sept. 29, 2017, file photo of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaking at the Heritage Foundation in the District of Columbia. Background is a file photo circa 2016 from Patagonia of the Cedar Mesa region of the Bears Ears National Monument. In a letter he wrote Thursday, Zinke is complaining that Senate Democrats are holding the department's nominees "hostage" to a political agenda that includes opposition to his review of presidentially designated national monuments, including among other Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. | Composite includes AP file photo of Zinke by Andrew Harnik and file photo of Cedar Mesa region of Bears Ears National Monument courtesy of Patagonia, St. George News

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA (AP) — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says Senate Democrats are holding the department’s nominees “hostage” to a political agenda that includes opposition to his review of presidentially designated monuments.

In a sharply worded letter to Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Zinke said it’s unfortunate that Democrats have placed holds on four Interior nominees, including the department’s top lawyer and budget chief.

The nominees “have nothing to do with this monument review, yet they have been forced to sit on the sidelines” for months, Zinke wrote Thursday. “As a former Navy SEAL, this is not the type of hostage situation I am accustomed to.”

Zinke offered to meet with Durbin, who requested a briefing last month along with other Democratic senators to discuss the monument review.

President Donald Trump ordered the review this spring following complaints by congressional Republicans that previous presidents had misused a century-old law intended to protect federal lands, creating oversized monuments that hinder energy development, logging and other uses. Trump called some monument designations by his Democratic predecessors “massive land grabs.”

Zinke has recommended that Trump shrink four large monuments in the West, including the sprawling Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah.

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Zinke also recommended that Nevada’s Gold Butte and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou monuments be reduced in size, although exact details remain unclear. The proposals have prompted an outcry from environmental groups and Democrats who accuse Trump and Zinke of engaging in a secretive process aimed at helping industry groups that have donated to GOP campaigns.

Opponents have promised to take the Trump administration to court to block any attempts to rescind or reduce the monument designations. Former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton designated the monuments under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to protect sites considered historic or geographically or culturally important.

In a letter last month, Durbin and 15 other senators complained that Zinke’s recommendations “threaten important natural, archaeological and cultural resources,” especially Bears Ears, a 1.3-million acre site in southeastern Utah that is home to thousands of Native American artifacts, including ancient cliff dwellings and petroglyphs.

“National monuments have preserved our country’s unique public lands, extraordinary history and our common culture as a people,” the senators wrote in an Oct. 23 letter to Trump. “We urge you not to reduce their boundaries in any way.”

Durbin and several other senators wrote a separate letter to Zinke seeking a meeting about the monument review, which they said has been conducted virtually in secret.

Zinke responded Thursday that he visited the four monuments that are being shrunk and met with or talked to lawmakers and governors in all four states.

“While the review does not affect the state of Illinois, I nonetheless understand your interest in this matter, and I appreciate the written comments you and your colleagues provided throughout this review process,” Zinke wrote to Durbin.

Durbin has placed holds on the nominees in his leadership role. Spokesman Ben Marter said Durbin looked forward to meeting with Zinke, although no date has been set.

“That was probably harder than it needed to be, but the secretary has now reached out to schedule a meeting,” Marter said, “and Sen. Durbin is looking forward to it.”

Durbin has placed holds on four Interior nominees: Susan Combs, nominated as assistant secretary for policy, management and budget; Joseph Balash, assistant secretary for land and minerals management; Ryan Nelson, solicitor; and Brenda Burman, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees dams and water projects in 17 Western states.

Written by MATTHEW DALY, Associated Press.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  • Caveat_Emptor November 11, 2017 at 2:53 pm

    Can’t imagine why Zinke would have time to complain, in between taxpayer funded trips on chartered aircraft, to fundraising events………The Interior Department will likely be gutted in the final budget, so why fill these jobs that will be eliminated eventually? Save the money for legal fees to defend the monument downsizing proposal.

  • bikeandfish November 11, 2017 at 10:34 pm

    I agree with Zinke that its unfortunate that the minority party holds up nominations. It has major influence on how policy is implemented, which is the clearly the last ditch effort by the Democrats. But it seems a bit hypocritical of Zinke given his role in the senate when they placed a hold on Garlands nomination. The scale of the type of disfunction is getting worse each election season and sadly leaves citizens and in this case land management in the lurch.

    In this case, shame on the Democrats for using such a desperate tool.

    • Caveat_Emptor November 12, 2017 at 8:20 am

      Fact check= Zinke was a Congressional Representative from the great state of Montana, not a Senator.

      • bikeandfish November 12, 2017 at 9:29 am

        True, thanks for correction. Sorry for the error. Made the mistake of concluding Senate because of his statement to Obama “My colleagues in the Senate have a unique opportunity before them” despite the next sentence making it clear he wasn’t one of them. Sloppy on my part.

  • Lee Sanders November 12, 2017 at 11:42 am

    I read that, in part, the Bears Ears was made as large as it was to protect traditional wildlife migration routes. Can anyone confirm that and if true, could explain the size, not just as a “land grab”.

    • bikeandfish November 13, 2017 at 11:33 am

      Haven’t heard that as a hunter nor do I think the Antiquities Act is legally used to protect wildlife corridors. Most of that area already had de facto protections for wildlife given remoteness, # of WSAs, and existing restrictions on extraction. Seems unlikely.

      That said, the “land grab” concept has always been nonsense. It was all federal land to begin with as that is the only land that can be designated under the Act.

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