BILLINGS – Confirmation proceedings for Interior secretary nominee Ryan Zinke begin this morning with the Montana congressman saying he will partner with local governments, repair national parks and allow federal employees to champion public views.

Zinke, a Republican, outlined three goals in his opening statement to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. His first was to “restore trust by working with, rather than against, local communities and states.”

“I fully recognize that there is distrust, anger and even hatred against some federal management policies,” Zinke said in opening remarks released Tuesday morning. “Being a listening advocate rather than a deaf adversary is a good start.”

Prioritizing the estimated $12.5 billion in backlogged maintenance at U.S. national parks was the second goal Zinke cited. He said President-elect Donald Trump is committed to a jobs and infrastructure bill, which Zinke said should include national parks. He asked senators to help make national parks a priority.

Finally, Zinke said he would ensure that Department of Interior employees working directly with the public were empowered to give a voice to those with whom they worked. Those employees at the ground level should have the flexibly to make decisions, he said.

Much of what Zinke said reflected his objectives in the U.S. House, including a stronger federal commitment to national parks and more input from local governments, states and tribes on how neighboring federal lands should be managed. The latter objective has drawn criticism from Democrats who say such input gives non-federal governments too much say in public management.

Earlier in the month, Zinke drew fire from Democrats for voting for a House rule critics say would make it easier to transfer federal lands to states, tribes and local governments.

Montana U.S. Sens. Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Steve Daines will together introduce Zinke at the beginning of the hearing.

Both Daines, who is also a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee member, and Tester met with Zinke privately ahead of the confirmation.

If confirmed, Zinke would be Montana’s first presidential cabinet member. Donald Trump nominated Zinke for the post in mid-December.

Zinke’s opening statement follows:

Congressman Ryan Zinke

Before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

January 17, 2017

Thank you Madam Chairman, Ranking Member Cantwell, and members of the Committee. Thank you also Montana Senators Tester and Daines for your kind remarks, leadership, and continued service on behalf of the Treasure State and our great nation. It is an honor to appear before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Before I begin my remarks, I would like to recognize the members of my family who have joined me today. My wife, Lolita, who is a member of President-elect’s National Hispanic Advisory Council; my daughter, Jennifer, and her husband, Jack; and my two granddaughters, Matilda and Charlotte. I told my daughter two things: Don’t join the Navy and don’t marry a Navy SEAL. I am proud to say that she ignored my advice, was a Navy diver and married a Navy SEAL. I am very proud of her. My sons Wolfgang and Konrad have returned to school and I hope are studying today.

As a son of a plumber and a kid who grew up in a small timber and railroad town next to Glacier National Park in Montana, I am humbled to be before you as the President-elect’s designee for Secretary of the Interior. I am also humbled because of the great responsibility the position holds to be the steward of majestic public lands, the champion of our great Indian nations, and the manager and voice of our diverse wildlife.

Upfront, I am an unapologetic admirer of Teddy Roosevelt and believe he had it right when he placed under federal protection millions of acres of federal lands and set aside much of it as national forests. Today, much of those lands provide Americans the opportunity to hike, fish, camp, recreate and enjoy the great outdoors. It was on those lands that my father taught me to fish and hunt and the Boy Scouts taught me the principles of environmental stewardship and the importance of public access. It is also these lands that many communities, like the town I grew up in, rely on to harvest timber, mine, and to provide our nation with energy. Without question, our public lands are America’s treasure and are rich in diversity. I fully recognize and appreciate that there are lands that deserve special recognition and are better managed under the John Muir model of wilderness, where man is more of an observer than an active participant. I also recognize that the preponderance of our federal holdings are better suited to be managed under the Pinchot model of multiple use using best practices, sustainable policies and objective science.

During the recent centennial of our National Park Service, I found myself at the ceremony at Yellowstone National Park, our first National Park established by Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872. As I enjoyed the celebration under the famous Roosevelt arch, I could not help but notice the words etched in the stone at the top of the arch “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” And, on the side of the right pillar was a plaque with the words “Created by Act of Congress.” I thought, “What a perfect symbol of what our land policy in a nation as great as ours should be."

The lesson here is this: It takes both sides to create an arch that serves a higher purpose and that higher purpose is best achieved through the approval and consent of Congress. In a nutshell, that is my commitment to you. If confirmed, I will work with each of you to ensure the use of our public lands reflects higher purpose so that our children’s children can look back and say, “We did it right.”

I have met with almost every member of the committee and understand that each state is different, and you have different priorities and issues. I am confident we can work together to get the job done.

When asked about what my goals might be, I would say there are three immediate tasks.

The first is to restore trust by working with rather than against local communities and states. I fully recognize that there is distrust, anger, and even hatred against some federal management policies. Being a listening advocate rather than a deaf adversary is a good start.

Second is to prioritize the estimated $12.5 billion in backlog of maintenance and repair in our national parks. The President elect is committed to a jobs and infrastructure bill, and I am going to need your help in making sure that bill includes shoring up our nation's treasures.

And third, to ensure the professionals on the front line, our rangers and field managers, have the right tools, right resources, and flexibility to make the right decisions that give a voice to the people they serve.

As a former Montana state senator and current Congressman, I have learned a lot since I was a SEAL in the deserts of Iraq. To accomplish my mission as secretary of Interior, I know that I am going to need your help, confidence, and perhaps even prayers. I look forward to answering your questions and, if confirmed, representing the interests of our great nation and giving a voice to all Americans, to include our great Indian nations, on how we manage and sustain our public lands and treasures they contain.

Madam Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Committee today, and I look forward to your questions. 

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