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Rebecca Colnar
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Zinke gets the thumbs up from ag groups

With the senate hearing for the Secretary of the Interior nominee Ryan Zinke completed, those most affected by federal lands management in the west are giving Montana's sole congressman a nod of approval.

Throughout his opening statement, Zinke reiterated his willingness to meet with people most affected by the department's policies, and listed his three immediate tasks.

"The first is to restore trust by working with rather than against local communities and states," Zinke noted. "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."

The Montana native said his second task would be 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."

"Third, I want 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," he said.

Ranchers watching the hearing may have noticed that grazing did not make the list of multiple use; natural resource development of oil production and coal received the most attention, with sportsmen's concerns coming in second. Several western senators addressed sage grouse management issues, and how stakeholders in the western states had worked to develop a feasible solution only to have those plans dismissed by the Bureau of Land Management. However, despite the lack of agriculturally related comments, ranchers believe the congressman will listen to the concerns of those whose livelihoods depend on grazing public lands.

HEARING CONCERNS

As Montana's Representative, Zinke has been willing to meet with ag groups and local rural communities.

"He's been very supportive of the agricultural community," said Tom DePuydt, a cow-calf producer from Malta, Mont. "About a year ago, he held a town hall meeting in Malta and heard our local concerns, especially regarding the listing of sage grouse as an endangered species. The Treasured Landscape Initiative, for monument expansion, introduced in 2010 by the then Bureau of Land Management Director Robert Abbey, was still very much on the minds of people in Malta and Rep. Zinke listened to us."

DePuydt believes Zinke will be a willing listener. "Listening and understanding is an important part of local input. Federal plans need to be consistent with local land use. I find it disturbing that in some cases, international concerns carry more weight than those of local people."

Although Zinke has indicated his strong support of funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which concerns DePuydt. "I have reservations about that, as I feel that fund needs to be overhauled and have a limitation regarding private lands and private property rights. I worry that fund provides too much money for land acquisitions. However, I'm hopeful if voted as interior secretary and with the new leadership in Washington, D.C., Zinke will make proper use of development of natural resources a priority. That's what makes our rural communities thrive," DePuydt said.

Montana Farm Bureau President Hans McPherson, who has met with Zinke in Montana and Washington, D.C., is thrilled with the nomination. "My experience is he gathers facts before forming opinions. He wants information from people who are on the ground with dirt under their fingernails or sawdust in their cuffs," said the Stevensville rancher. "He wants to know what's going on in the woods and on the farm. He will be levelheaded and honest, and willing to take advice and seek advice. He's not going to tell you he'll do something, then not do it."

McPherson believes Zinke will listen, a trait that he said has been lacking in past interior secretaries. "Anybody who grazes, farms, logs or mines will have a say. He is certainly not going to let the environment get trashed, but he'll use sound science to make decisions, and give more weight to those directly affect by federal land management policies than basing a decision from someone far-removed in San Francisco."

BALANCING ACT

The fact Zinke understands Western issues is critical. "Montana is unique because we have logging, we have grazing, we have mining, and yet we also have the biggest and best national parks in this country," McPherson noted. Zinke understands the importance of balancing those. He will be a great asset to President Trump's cabinet, and as a Montanan, I couldn't be more excited or more proud to have him serve as secretary of the interior."

Although grazing wasn't front and center in the senate confirmation hearings, the National Cattleman's Beef Association and the Public Lands Council also gave approval for Zinke.

According to the NCBA, Western ranchers own approximately 120 million acres of the most productive private land in the West and manage nearly 250 million acres of public land. "For too long, ranchers have been marginalized and overlooked during planning processes and the benefits they provide to public rangelands, wildlife and natural resources have gone unrecognized," said Dave Eliason, PLC president. "The current leadership of the Department of Interior refuses to stand up for the very people who have invested their time and livelihoods into the management and improvement of public lands. Having a secretary of interior who understands public lands, and who values true cooperation with stakeholders is in the best interest of all Americans. We are excited for Representative Zinke to refocus the agency's efforts to their core mission, and to have someone in this role that understands the unique challenges we face in the West."