HELENA — Environmental groups plan to crash the homecoming in Montana next week of President Donald Trump's Interior Department secretary with billboards, television ads and speeches to pressure him on issues from national monuments to sage grouse.
Ryan Zinke is scheduled to address the Western Governors Association's annual conference Tuesday in the town of Whitefish, which he represented as a state lawmaker from 2009 to 2011.
He will be welcomed by billboards urging him not to touch the Upper Missouri River Breaks, one of two dozen national monuments he's reviewing to eliminate or scale back protections.
Television ads will air during the conference telling him to leave alone a conservation plan by the Obama administration and 11 Western states to protect the sage grouse, an imperiled bird.
Advocates will give speeches in a downtown Whitefish park the day before Zinke's address, calling on the interior chief to better protect public lands.
"Welcome home," said Larry Epstein, a member of a group renting the billboards that supports the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. "We hope to get the attention of Secretary Zinke and the Western governors."
Eleven governors, their staffs, lobbyists, business representatives and special interest groups will meet in the resort town near Glacier National Park on topics that include the Endangered Species Act, forest management and ties with Canada.
Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift and the Department of Interior press office did not return email queries for comment.
Supporters of the Trump administration's plans to review and possibly loosen existing land and wildlife protections are dismayed by the heavy investment that environmentalists are making to confront Zinke on his home turf.
Ron Poertner, one of about 120 ranchers, farmers and landowners who live in or use the Upper Missouri River Breaks and favor reducing the size of the 590-square-mile national monument, said they can't compete with that level of organization and money.
"We're haying, we're still spraying weeds, we're still doing farm work," Poertner said. "To say, 'Let's take a bus and do some counter-protesting,' there's no way."
The Montana monument, created in 2001 just before President Bill Clinton left office, includes federal, state and private land that surrounds a 149-mile stretch of the Missouri River that is mostly unchanged since Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery traversed it in the early 1800s.
Zinke is reviewing it and 23 other monuments in a report that will recommend whether they should be resized or eliminated.
Opponents of changes, such as Epstein's Hold Our Ground group, say the review is a waste of taxpayer money by rehashing already settled arguments. Supporters like Poertner are worried they'll be squeezed off the land and say presidents have too much power to unilaterally designate national monuments.
Zinke's Interior Department also is reviewing the land-use policies implemented in 2015 as a way of preventing even stricter policies to protect the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
The conservation group Western Values Project is launching a television ad campaign for the Western Governors Association meant to ratchet up pressure on both Zinke and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
"It appears Secretary Zinke wants to scrap all the work done by Western communities, coalitions, sportsmen and women, wildlife managers, private landowners, and industry groups," Executive Director Chris Saeger said in a statement. "If Governor Bullock has an audience with Secretary Zinke next week, he must use it to insist that Interior continue with the sage grouse plans."