President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a pledge to keep federal lands in federal hands, is now considering candidates for Interior secretary who have advocated transferring vast swaths of federal property to states, and even to private interests.
These include U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, who met with White House officials Saturday about the job, and U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, who has left open the possibility he’d take a Cabinet position with Trump. Both Republicans will be jobless at the end of the month, after Heller lost his Senate re-election bid and Labrador lost the GOP primary for Idaho governor.
While running for president, Trump told hunting and fishing interests he was opposed to transferring federal lands to states and private interests, saying he wanted to “keep the lands great.” His position is thought to be influenced by his son, Donald Trump Jr., a sportsman with strong ties to hunting and angling organizations, which oppose transfer of lands they use for sport.
But with Montana’s Ryan Zinke resigning as Interior Secretary, Trump could be forced to replace him with a nominee who holds a much different position on the sanctity of federal lands. Altogether, the federal government controls 640 million acres of public property nationwide — mostly in the West — with the Interior Department managing the bulk of that through the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.
Both Labrador and Heller are “staunch supporters of selling federal public lands or transferring them to state control,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, a former Interior official who now tracks public lands issues for the Center for American Progress, a liberal policy group. That contrasts with Zinke, he added, “who repeatedly claimed he opposed the transfer or sale of public lands.”
During his tenure in the House, Labrador introduced legislation, H.R. 2316, that would have transferred management of up to 4 million acres of national forest land to Western states, under a pilot program that would have governor-appointed committees determining their uses. It was opposed by the Forest Service.
A person close to Labrador who declined to speak publicly said the Idaho congressman’s position has been misrepresented. The legislation would not transfer the title of the land to the state government, the person said.
“Rep. Labrador opposes the sale of federal land, like President Trump,” the person said.
He also voted against an amendment that would have specified that federal lands could not be transferred to private ownership, a vote that brought him the wrath of some sporting groups.
While declining to comment on potential nominees, the White House issued a statement on whether the president would insist upon an Interior leader who shared his position on federal lands.
“President Trump will choose an individual who shares his commitment of protecting America’s lands for future generations through collaborative conservation, including regulatory relief, proper forest management, and responsible energy development,” a White House official said.
By wide margins, polls suggest Americans support current federal ownership of public lands. But the issue is contentious among ranchers, off-road vehicle enthusiasts and other groups in Western states with a high percentage of federal land. In Idaho, more than 60 percent of the land is in federal ownership.
“We have counties that are over 90 percent federal land,” said Steve Vick, an Idaho state senator who is encouraged that Labrador is being considered for the Interior post. “We need more local control in the management of federal lands..”
Labrador’s contacts with the White House were first reported by The Associated Press, and a source confirmed them to McClatchy on Tuesday. Labrador was talking to senior administration officials within hours of Zinke’s announced resignation, visited the White House on Saturday and has continued to talk with the officials since, according to a person close to the situation.
Both Labrador and Heller also made sympathetic comments about Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his supporters, who engaged in two high-profile standoffs with federal land managers, including occupation of an Oregon wildlife refuge. Labrador called the refuge takeover an act of “peaceful” civil obedience. Heller initially called Bundy and his supporters “patriots.”
With Democrats taking control of the House, there is little chance Congress would agree to transfer large amounts of federal land to the states, even if Trump were to support it. But according to Lee-Ashley, the administration could take steps on its own to transfer some decisions on federal land energy development to the states, as the oil and gas industry has advocated.
Heller and Labrador are not the only Republicans being mentioned as possible Interior candidates. U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham of California, who lost his re-election bid, is said to be interested in the job, and has sought the support of House Majority Kevin McCarthy, a fellow Californian and a key Trump ally.
Another possible candidate is Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who is expected to be named acting Interior secretary until the Senate confirms Trump’s nominee. Environmentalists have unloaded on Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for energy and irrigation interests, for potential conflicts of interests and decisions that benefit his former clients. But he’s known to be an effective manager, and possibly would be more savvy than Zinke in avoiding investigations into his actions.
Ann D. Navaro, a partner at the Bracewell law firm in D.C., said Bernhardt has been Interior’s point person in streamlining permits for oil and gas development on public lands, and she expects that to continue, whether or not he rises to become secretary.
“He’s a very strong leader. He really understands the mission of the agency,” said Navaro, who previously worked at the Interior Department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “But it would be an unusual pick for Interior, since it usually goes to a western (political) figure.”
U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who sits on the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee, said he doesn’t expect a protracted confirmation fight for any of the Interior candidates being mentioned. “I’m pretty confident we can get any of those in — get any of those confirmed,” Lee said Tuesday.
Unlike Bernhardt, Labrador and Heller have a history of openly criticizing Trump, with Labrador calling him “a big whiner” during the 2016 Republican presidential primary, when Labrador supported Ted Cruz. But Trump no longer seems to make unblemished personal support a litmus test for appointments, evidenced by Mick Mulvaney’s ascension to become acting White House chief of staff.
Mulvaney, a former congressman from South Carolina, initially opposed Trump’s candidacy and once called him “a terrible human being.”
McClatchy’s Kate Irby contributed to this report, which has been updated with Sen. Mike Lee’s comments.