WHITEFISH, Mont. — When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was a state senator from this idyllic mountain town, he drove a Prius, sported a beard and pushed President Barack Obama to make clean energy a priority.
Today, the beard and Prius are gone, and Mr. Zinke has emerged as a leading figure, along with Scott Pruitt of the Environmental Protection Agency, in the environmental rollbacks that have endeared President Trump to the fossil fuel industry and outraged conservationists.
In the last year, Mr. Zinke has torn up Obama-era rules related to oil, gas and mineral extraction and overseen the largest reduction of federal land protection in the nation’s history, including an effort to slash the size of Bears Ears National Monument.
But here in Montana, where support for drilling in certain beloved areas can be a career killer, Mr. Zinke has struck a different note. And as he faces allegations that he has violated travel and ethics rules, an examination of his Interior Department record shows that his pro-development bent has not always applied to his home state, where he is viewed as a fiercely ambitious candidate for future office.
In the past year, Mr. Zinke has halted the sale of oil and gas leases near Yellowstone National Park, opposed gold mining in that area, and urged the president to protect one national monument, Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks, while creating another, the Badger-Two Medicine, just miles from his childhood home.
“It is very clear that Montana is treated very differently,” said Chris Saeger, a Whitefish resident who leads a conservation group called the Western Values Project.
And in recent weeks, Mr. Zinke has promised to commit “whatever it takes” to rebuilding a cherished century-old backcountry chalet not far from here — a potentially expensive proposition that is sure to earn him points at home.
In an interview, Mr. Zinke said his Montana decisions were consistent with a longstanding belief that some areas “are too sensitive” for development and that he was not treating his home state differently than the rest of the nation.
“I don’t think that’s supported by the facts,” he said, pointing out that he recently halted the sale of oil and gas leases near New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon and pushed for coastal redevelopment in Louisiana. “I do listen to Montanans the same way I listen to Palau or the Virgin Islands.”
Mr. Zinke is one of half a dozen current and former Trump officials entangled in controversy over their use of government funds.
One watchdog agency, the United States Office of Special Counsel, is considering whether two of Mr. Zinke’s taxpayer-funded trips to speak alongside Republican politicians violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in government-funded political activity. And another, the Interior Department’s Inspector General, is examining whether Mr. Zinke’s travel violated rules.
(The Office of Special Counsel is a longstanding agency that is not related to Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.)
On Monday, a partial report found that Mr. Zinke’s travel practices “generally followed relevant law,” but called into question a $12,000 publicly funded charter flight the secretary took from a dinner with a Nevada hockey team to Whitefish, where the Western Governors’ Association was holding its annual meeting.
The hockey team is owned by Bill Foley, a top donor of Mr. Zinke’s who also owns much of Whitefish.
The report said that a government ethics team approved the trip with incomplete information from Mr. Zinke’s staff, which failed to mention, for example, the cost of the flight, the fact that the team’s owner had funded Mr. Zinke’s campaigns, and the fact that the secretary’s speech to hockey players would not mention the Department of the Interior.
“If ethics officials had known Zinke’s speech would have no nexus to the DOI,” the report says, “they likely would not have approved this as an official event.”
The secretary called the investigation “a distraction.”
“I followed every procedure,” he said, “every policy, every rule, and most importantly, I followed the law.”
Mr. Zinke, 56, is a fifth-generation Montanan who has raced up the political ladder in recent years. A former football star, he served 23 years in the Navy SEALs. During his time there, he helped snatch a reviled Bosnian Serb war criminal, but was also punished for abuse of travel expenses.
He entered politics in 2009, serving four years in the State Senate and two years as Montana’s sole representative in the United States House, before joining the president’s cabinet. As secretary of the interior, he oversees about 500 million acres of public lands rich in cultural and natural resources, and the job requires him to balance conservation and development.
In all, he manages about a fifth of the country’s land mass, plus nearly two billion offshore acres.
In his early years in politics, Mr. Zinke courted environmentalists like Steve Thompson, an elk hunter and Whitefish resident who had been on the board of the Montana Conservation Voters. Mr. Thompson recalled receiving a call from Mr. Zinke in 2008.
“He said he was an environmental-minded Teddy Roosevelt Republican and was looking for MCV’s endorsement, and could he meet with me, could I support him, any advice?” Mr. Thompson said.
“He was the greenest Republican in the State Senate,” Mr. Thompson said.
But as Mr. Trump’s chief public lands administrator, Mr. Zinke has favored the fossil fuel companies that have increasingly made up his donor base, overhauling restrictions on methane emissions, fast-tracking the oil-and-gas leasing process, and pushing to open nearly the entire outer continental shelf for energy development.
“What bothers me about him is not so much his hypocrisy, it’s that he’s boldly ambitious and not guided by any reality-based principle,” Mr. Thompson said. He called the secretary’s policies beyond Montana “a deep disappointment.”
But those policies have thrilled both industry executives and Westerners frustrated by what they perceived as the Obama administration’s lock-them-up attitude toward public lands.
“He’s not doing this for Ryan Zinke,” said Turner Askew, a Whitefish real estate developer who has known Mr. Zinke since he left the SEALs. “He’s doing this for you and me. For the whole country.”
When Mr. Zinke has carved out protections, they have often been in Montana. On the same day that he wrote to Mr. Trump to reduce two national monuments in Utah — a major disappointment for five southwestern tribes — he suggested the president consider a new one in the Badger-Two Medicine, an area many Montanans have sought to guard for years.
“It means a lot to the tribe,” said Harry Barnes, chairman of the Blackfeet Nation, which considers the Badger-Two Medicine sacred. “Is it contradictory? Sure it is. I would be a fool not to recognize that.”
Montana is known for independent political culture, but it has moved right in recent years, and Mr. Trump won the state by 20 points. Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, will be term-limited in 2020, and Mr. Zinke is thought to have his eye on the job.
A polling firm recently floated his name by Iowa voters, leading to speculation that he is also looking toward a bid for president.
Mr. Zinke has traveled to Montana at least nine times on official or personal business since his nomination, sometimes mixing the two. Here in Whitefish, he is an occasional sight at the grocery store, where he greets people by name and bids them goodbye with his signature: “Keep the faith!”
Many of his supporters reject the idea that he is favoring Montana, and explain his divergent land policies as a nuanced responsiveness to the West. The Utah monuments were widely opposed by state politicians, for example, while the Montana monuments have more official support.
Senator Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, said Mr. Zinke’s focus on the state made sense. “He’s certainly been engaged in Montana — rightfully so,” he said. “We’re the fourth largest state in the nation, and we have a significant presence of BLM lands and public lands.”
On a trip home last month, Mr. Zinke delivered an $800,000 check to the Blackfeet related to a water agreement, then went to Glacier National Park where he pledged to save the beloved chalet.
In the interview, Mr. Zinke said he had little interest in the governor’s job, and believed his next step would involve floating down a lot of rivers, learning how to fly-fish better, and “being helpful to groom and advise the next generation of conservationists.”
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