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Interior secretary stepping down; Heller seen as possible replacement

Updated December 17, 2018 - 8:22 am

WASHINGTON Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke submitted his resignation Saturday to President Donald Trump, who announced that the former Navy SEAL from Montana would leave at the end of the year, raising speculation on replacements who include Nevada Sen. Dean Heller.

“Ryan has accomplished much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation,” Trump said in a morning tweet from a social media account.

Zinke is the subject of multiple investigations, and Trump hinted weeks ago that he might replace the former Montana congressman.

Immediate speculation of possible replacements included Heller, the only Republican Senate incumbent to lose on Nov. 6, and other potential candidates with a background in public land policy.

In an interview with the Review-Journal before the Zinke announcement, Heller left open the possibility that he would accept an administration appointment, whether it be Interior or another Cabinet-level or departmental position.

The senator was not actively seeking a post, and when asked if he would accept an appointment, he replied: “I don’t have the answer to that question.”

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence campaigned in Nevada for Heller, who lost to freshman Rep. Jacky Rosen in an election that saw Democrats sweep federal and almost all state offices.

Heller said he had not been approached by anyone in the administration about a possible appointment, and said he would return to Nevada to contemplate his future.

“I do know what I’m going to do initially,” Heller said. “And that’s spend more time with (wife) Lynne.”

Heller was not immediately available for comment Saturday.

Other possible replacements

The Washington Post reported several other possible contenders to replace Zinke, including Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, and Rep. Bob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Bishop will become the ranking member on the Natural Resources panel on Jan. 3 when Democrats take control of the House.

Bishop was instrumental in getting the Trump administration to reduce the size of several national monuments designated for protection by President Barack Obama, including Gold Butte in Nevada.

Heller also sought a reduction in the size of Gold Butte and Basin and Range national monuments, and urged the Trump administration to reduce the boundaries. Zinke recommended a small reduction for Gold Butte, but Trump has not acted on that recommendation.

Pressure from Bishop and the Utah congressional delegation led to a large rollback of the boundaries at Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

‘Unmitigated disaster’

Shrinking the national monuments was engineered by Zinke, who drew intense criticism from environmental groups, Democrats and tribal leaders who accused the administration of favoring special interests in land use policy.

“Ryan Zinke was an unmitigated disaster for Nevada’s wildlife and public lands,” said Patrick Donnelly, Nevada state director with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Donnelly said Zinke put 1 million acres of Nevada lands on the auction block for oil drilling and fracking, denied endangered species protections and allowed “violent zealots” to run cattle and “trash our precious Gold Butte National Monument.

“Good riddance to the worst Interior secretary America has ever known,” Donnelly said.

Praise from Murkowski

But Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, praised Zinke for taking a different approach to public land management and listening to all interests when developing policy.

“He has been a strong partner for western states and for Alaska, in particular,” Murkowski said.

She credited Zinke for his priority on energy dominance, opening up Alaska lands for oil development, and eliminating the maintenance backlog at National Parks.

“Secretary Zinke has done a lot of good things for our country,” Murkowski said.

But Zinke’s tenure at the Interior Department was marred by investigations into ethical lapses, extravagant spending and a questionable land deal with an energy firm in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana.

House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Zinke was the subject of 15 investigations over official misconduct and misuse of taxpayer’s funds.

“Americans are confronted with an administration of unprecedented corruption, cronyism and incompetence, which has shown zero respect for the office or taxpayers’ money,” Pelosi said.

Zinke was cleared of wrongdoing by the Interior Department Office of Special Counsel for a June 2017 chartered airplane trip from Las Vegas to Montana after a giving a speech to the Golden Knights hockey team.

The team is owned by billionaire Bill Foley, whose financial firm was a large donor to Zinke’s congressional race.

The chartered aircraft cost taxpayers $12,375, and was cleared by Interior ethics officials, who said they were unaware of the connection between Zinke and Foley.

With Zinke leaving, Bernhardt will become the acting secretary and can serve in the role for months before the president must nominate a permanent successor who must receive Senate confirmation.

Bernhardt first served in the Interior Department under President George W. Bush. He joined a lobbying firm in 2009 following his tenure as official counsel to the interior secretary.

He was confirmed as Interior deputy secretary under Zinke in 2017, where he worked on the administration’s review of the 2015 sage grouse protections agreed to by Western states, conservation groups and industries.

The deputy also launched a review of the Endangered Species Act, which drew criticism from Democrats and conservation groups.

“Trump is just replacing one scandal-plagued secretary with the ultimate D.C. swamp creature and ex-lobbyist David Bernhardt,” said Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project in Whitefish, Montana.

A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the status of a recommendation by Zinke to reduce the size of Gold Butte National Monument. Zinke recommended a small reduction for Gold Butte, but Trump has not acted on that recommendation.

Contact Gary Martin at gmartin@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7390. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.

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