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Zinke hits on forest management, housing and political division during stop in Libby

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | November 12, 2021 7:00 AM

Former Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke stressed the importance of streamlining public land management and incentivizing affordable housing development during a campaign stop in Libby this week.

Zinke, who is hoping to return to the U.S. House as a representative for Montana’s second congressional district, met with county commissioners and local reporters in separate gatherings on Nov. 9.

Drawing on his experience as U.S. Secretary of the Interior under former President Donald Trump, Zinke, a Republican, pointed to how bureaucracy could prevent development in areas like Lincoln County. Specifically, he discussed the challenges of building a bridge or dock in a waterway where the surface property, subsurface property, fish and watershed are all regulated by different federal agencies.

“The reason why I highlight it is because in Lincoln County the years of bureaucracy that have been established have prevented the community from reaching its potential,” he said.

As a member of Trump’s cabinet, Zinke said he worked to reduce the layers of government oversight and pushed departments to collaborate. While serving as secretary of the interior, the former Navy SEAL drew criticism from environmental groups for allowing the expansion of oil and gas exploration on federal property. Close to home, however, he put a two-decade ban on mining claims on a 30,000-acre stretch near Yellowstone National Park.

WHEN IT comes to forest management, Zinke said he would like to see piecemeal timber sales replaced with more holistic management contracts. By consolidating timber work through large-scale and long-term agreements, Zinke said forest managers could improve sustainable logging, reduce the risk of forest fires and shield themselves from lawsuits. A steady output of timber would also create a stable platform for jobs.

“That makes sense particularly in Lincoln County and Sanders County if they have the labor pool. It makes an investment policy practical and possible,” he said.

To boost jobs locally, Zinke favored the construction of timber mills and the easing of mining restrictions.

“For mining, when the permit [process] is long, unfair and can be manipulated by special interest groups, that's a concern,” he said. “When plywood is at $80 a sheet and we can’t manufacture wood products in Libby, the regulation is very excessive.”

WITH REAL estate prices soaring throughout the state, Zinke said he favored incentivizing private businesses to build affordable housing. This could take the form of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development programs or bonds issued by counties to guarantee loans.

Rather than focus on supporting the construction of standalone houses, Zinke said officials should concentrate on incentivizing apartments where the cost per unit is lower.

IN HIS bid for Congress, Zinke said he had secured Trump’s “complete and total endorsement.” U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, Gov. Greg Gianforte and organizations including the American Conservative Union and the National Rifle Association also support Zinke.

While Zinke described the 2020 presidential election as unfair due to bias from media outlets and social media companies, he said the results were clear.

“President [Joe] Biden is the president. Period,” he said. “That’s where we are.”

Other Republican candidates for the U.S. House seat include former state Sen. Al Olszewski and Kalispell pastor Mary Todd. Democratic candidates include state legislator Laurie Bishop, public health expert Cora Neumann, lawyer Monica Tranel and former state lawmaker Tom Winter.

Zinke left the Trump administration in 2018 after facing federal investigations including a probe into a potential conflict of interest in Montana real estate dealings. Since stepping down, Zinke has repeatedly denied the allegations.

If elected, Zinke said he would focus on mending fault lines. By working with fellow lawmakers to secure the needed 218 votes to pass legislation in the House, Zinke said he would provide the leadership needed to fix issues currently dividing the nation.

“I would say the greatest threat to this country is not Russia, it’s not China, not Iran,” he said. “I think the biggest threat facing the country is division.”