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Trump Eyes Westerners for Top Job at Interior After Zinke Resigns

Photo of Bishop and Reyes.
Rep. Rob Bishop (left) and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes (right) are on the short list to helm the U.S. Department of the Interior after Ryan Zinke's departure.

Several Mountain West Republicans are reportedly on the short list to replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, after President Donald Trump announced his imminent departure over the weekend.

The position is especially important in the West because the Interior Department has jurisdiction over many locally relevant issues — from water at the Bureau of Reclamation and endangered species at the Fish and Wildlife Service, to rangeland at the Bureau of Land Management and mining royalties at the Office of Natural Resource Revenue. Interior has 70,000 employees, a $12 billion annual budget and manages about one-fifth of the land in the United States.

“The Trump administration would want somebody who understands the Department of Interior’s mission and is prepared to continue with the agenda the administration has set,” said Ann Navaro, an environment and energy attorney who recently left the department.

With President Donald Trump facing reelection in 2020, observers say he will want to choose an Interior secretary who can articulate the administration’s “energy dominance” agenda and other key policy positions. Ahead of selecting of Zinke’s replacement, the agency already faces controversy — besides ethics allegations against the departing secretary. For instance, the department has come under fire for minimizing climate change impacts in reports, and leaders snubbed the comments of more than 2 million people Zinke advised Trump to carve millions of acres from two national monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes issued a statement Monday, shortly after returning to the state from Washington D.C. An advocate for a lawsuit to force the federal government to turn over public lands to the state, Reyes praised Zinke for “remarkable work partnering with local officials in land management decisions.”

“For Western America, there will be few decisions as consequential as choosing the next secretary of the interior,” he said. “With so many stellar public servants on the shortlist, it's an honor to even be thought of as a possible replacement.”

U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, who represents Utah’s 1st District, is also reportedly under consideration. ATrump supporter, Bishop has been chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee for the past four years, but he’s losing that position when the control of Congress shifts to Democrats next month.

“Whoever is selected as the next Secretary of the Interior […] must continue addressing the maintenance backlog on public lands, continue the effort to reorganize the department, and continue to engage state and local officials,” Bishop said in a text message to KUER Monday. “Secretary Zinke had the vision to start this process, and his successor must have the know-how to bring it to a conclusion.”

Also reportedly in the running are two Idaho Republicans, Gov. Butch Otter and U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador. Both chose not to run for re-election to their current positions.

But none of these elected officials from the West may be frontrunners.

“I have heard all of those names, but the name I’ve heard most recently is [U.S. Sen.] Dean Heller of Nevada,” said Navaro.

Heller, who lost his U.S. Senate re-election bid last month, has backed key parts of the Trump administration’s public lands agenda, like stepping up energy development and shrinking national monuments. Heller would have an easy time winning confirmation by his Senate colleagues, and he already has a strong grasp of the Trump agenda.

David L. Bernhardt, Zinke’s second in command, is also reported to be high on the list. However, he may face a confirmation fight because of his background as a lobbyist.

Trump tweeted Saturday that he’ll choose areplacement for Zinke this week.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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