Rep. Ryan Zinke on the outdoor experience.


Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke believes there are two groups within the conservation movement—the Muirs and the Pinchots. The former relates to John Muir, who was known as a preservationist advocating for the least human intervention with nature. The latter is a nod to Gifford Pinchot, whose more hands-on approach to conservation often dealt with issues of land management by considering “the greatest good of the greatest number in the longest run.”

During a May 16, 2024, interview with Mountain Outlaw between meetings in Washington D.C., Zinke echoed Pinchot, repeating versions of his signature phrase no fewer than four times. Though the conversation covered many topics, he often came back to these words, as his Congressional campaign for re-election, as well as his personality, are largely rooted in the outdoor experience.

“Everything seems to be hyperpartisan and there are a few issues that in Montana are largely not partisan and those issues are the outdoors,” Zinke said.

After a career as a Navy SEAL, Montana native Zinke served in the Montana Legislature, served a brief term as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, and is currently finishing out a term in Congress representing Montana’s western district. During what he called “an interesting year,” he buzzes with an energy that carries him through his work on “the front line,” as he says, revealing the SEAL he once was.

Zinke earned national recognition after President Donald Trump appointed him to the Cabinet in 2017, and national headlines followed him through ethics investigations into his work that led to his resignation from his post as Secretary of the Interior half-way through his term. After returning to federal office with an election win in 2020, Republican Zinke is currently seeking to hold his position at the ballot boxes this fall.

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Rep. Ryan Zinke says much of his appeal lands on his ability to listen, and make decisions based on the Montana Constitution. PHOTO COURTESY OF RYAN ZINKE
Ryan Zinke’s grandparents Esther and Arthur at their wedding in Miles City, Montana, in 1929. PHOTO COURTESY OF RYAN ZINKE

Mountain Outlaw: Rep. Ryan Zinke, thanks for taking the time to speak with Mountain Outlaw. I know you’re busy running a campaign for re-election, and of course with your “day job” in Congress.

You grew up in Bozeman and Whitefish, where you still live, both beautiful Western communities with similar issues of growth, wealth disparity and the responsibility of being a gateway community to two popular national parks. How did these places shape you as both a citizen of the West and as a politician?

Rep. Ryan Zinke: I live in the same family house that my mom grew up in, my kids grew up in and my grandmother. And despite the rumor, I am from Montana.

I lived in a period where Whitefish was primarily a railroad town. It was timber second, and then it had a little ski hill put together by four veterans. One of them, which was 82nd Airborne, made all five jumps in World War II. And he had an influence on me seeking a military career because there was just a handful that made all five jumps. And he was a tough guy and I liked him a lot as a kid.

Then I was a boy scout and a lot of my experience about conservation comes from scouting, quite frankly. Whitefish at the time had great teachers and one of them was Bill Schustrom … who was in the park service during the summer. And it was a huge influence on my views on environmental science. Then I joined the SEALs and then being a SEAL, what you do is you solve some of the nation’s hardest problems and most complex problems. Then [I started] in politics and I got a chance to be Secretary of the Interior.

M.O.: Where were some of your favorite places to recreate growing up?

R.Z.: I would say Meadow Creek Gorge up in the Bob [Marshall Wilderness]. I would [also] say Glacier; just pick a spot. As a kid growing up in Whitefish, I mean, pick any direction. … I spent a lot of time with a rowboat on Whitefish Lake. My dad was a plumber, and at the time a plumber could afford a lake house that was 1,100 square feet with seven kids.

M.O.: You began your political career in the Montana Senate in 2009. After serving as a U.S. Navy SEAL, what prompted this transition?

R.Z.: Most Navy SEALs look at what we call the five paragraphs. You look at, what [is] the situation, what’s going on now—and clearly we need better management and we need these larger discussions about how to manage [land] for the next hundred years. Because there’s examples that we all know, even finding public access where we’re relying on OnX to find that sliver to get to the river. We shouldn’t have to; we can be better than that. I could tell you we could be a lot better than that. And there are certain properties that the federal or the state should acquire to make sure we open up and maintain those corridors not only for recreation, but also wildlife. And if you look at the next hundred years, there’s some certainties. Our pressure on public lands is going to increase.

Southwest Montana river advocates join a Headwaters Legacy Committee in Washington D.C. The Montana Headwaters Legacy Act will protect 385 river miles in Montana by designating segments of 20 streams as parts of the National Wild and Scenic River System. OUTLAW PARTNERS PHOTO

M.O.: You mentioned that as a SEAL you have to solve complex problems. How does that translate to your work in Washington D.C.?

R.Z.: When I came in, there were two huge problems this country faced. One was we were beholden by foreign interests on our energy needs. And then secondly, personally to me it was our parkswere falling apart, the very parks we all love, the infrastructure was falling apart. And they said, “you can’t solve it.” I said, “Well watch this.” And so we did. We solved both of them. We became the world’s largest energy producer in two years, and we passed the Great American Outdoors Act, which was the largest investment in the history of this country on infrastructure for our parks and forests.

M.O.: Now serving your third Congressional term and running for your fourth, do you feel driven to serve by the same compass that got you into politics initially, or has that shifted over your career?

R.Z.: I think America’s in trouble, and I think everyone has to do their duty. I think where we’re at in the country is this is what happens when people don’t pay attention because the government doesn’t run on its own. … I’ve never seen anything that’s not fixable, but I think everyone has to do their duty and pay attention. And I think the Montana way of life, to a degree, is threatened. And there are a number of threats on the outdoors experience.

Recreation is changing too. Technology is changing. … And with that, Montana is changing. You have difficult housing, which can be fixed with broader economics, and you also have a recognition that Montana is special. And what’s special about Montana is largely the outdoor experience. In a very partisan world where it seems like it’s blue team versus red team, I think when it comes to public lands, it should be the red, white and blue team.

M.O.: You have a track record of opposing public land transfers from federal to state hands. Many other Republicans don’t. Tell me about your current attitude on this topic. What is your vision for public lands management?

R.Z.: A lot of it is now we more effectively manage, and going back to where I think it’s the American conservation ethic of using the best science, longest term, greatest good and best practices. And land can be used [as] assets in multiple uses. You can have recreation and you can have preservation in the same ballpark. I know this is going to upset some, but you can have a mountain bike trail in Wilderness in my view, because when the Wilderness Act was put together in 1964, mountain bikes were not even thought of. So now you have electric bikes. So how about encouraging access to electric bikes … as long as you stay on the trail. You could do it by making sure you have a permit and the permit has a little GPS tracker and you get off the trail, you’re going to know. So there’s all sorts of easy technology to keep people on the trail, but also like electric bikes, you [provide] access to disabled, elderly, all those type of people that you need that should have access to their public lands in a reasonable manner.

Zinke says he and his wife’s favorite outdoor activity is floating Montana’s many rivers. PHOTO COURTESY OF RYAN ZINKE
The Gallatin River, running from Yellowstone National Park, through Gallatin Canyon and to the Missouri Headwaters in Three Forks, is one of the many rivers that would earn protection from the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act. ADOBE STOCK PHOTO

M.O.: In an editorial you wrote for CNN, you said your decisions as the Secretary of the Interior were about listening to “the people,” not special interests or voices in Washington D.C. Can you explain that?

R.Z.: That’s why I value the House a lot; it is the people’s House and everyone should get a say, but not the say. Montana’s voice largely is carried in the House, at least in my voice, by a kid that grew up in Montana, loves the outdoors, but also a lot of it is—it’s Montana. Most of the rest of the world view Montana through the lens of Yellowstone. And I know Kevin Costner personally, he’s a great guy; I think it’s well produced, it’s well written. It is an excellent drama set in Montana, just like Star Wars is a drama set in space. Guys, it’s a drama. But what I face a lot here is that people want to manage Montana as if they know it. And so they want to manage our water temperature, our water flow, riparian bank; they want to manage all water in and out of the riparian bank. They want to manage species, but they want to manage the Yellowstone River—and they’ve never seen it. It is difficult to manage things when you don’t know where they are. And so my push is a lot of times is the local community needs a voice when Montana needs a voice, especially when you have these carpet bombers that come over and try one size fits all. One size doesn’t fit all.

If you go over to the Dakotas … they really don’t like conservation easements. I don’t know why, but there’s an entrenched suspicion about conservation easements … but Montana doesn’t have that same view, and that’s just an example of this one size fits all. It doesn’t fit all.

M.O.: You represent a state with a deep history and pride in coal mining. In many communities, coal is their identity and spans generations. Do you see a place in the future for alternative energy sources in Montana? How do you think we get there?

R.Z.: Well, there’s no doubt that fossil fuels are part of the energy picture that is critical, and cleaner fuel is better, but also you have to look at the supply chain. In the [electric vehicle] world, you have to consider China. And China has northwards of 80 percent of the critical minerals, the lithium, etc., the components that make up the world. So having the supply chain looking at energy itself, there’s two things that drive the economy. Energy is probably the biggest thing. And then inflation by overspending. So if we want to get back to where people can actually afford a home and maybe afford a trip in the car, we better look at energy costs and inflation because it’s killing everybody, and unsustainable.

M.O.: How do you believe conservation can become a bipartisan issue? How do you propose we cross that aisle?

R.Z.: In politics, there’s an opportunity because in Montana largely there’s the love of the outdoors that is not Republican or Democrat. So what I’ve done in a world of hyperpartisanship is it may be a first step to work together is to find something that you both are passionate about. And the first example was public lands. In public hands. I have always been a champion to make sure we don’t sell or transfer public lands, but I am strongly on the management side of it because I just can’t see our forests burning down at the rate they are. The amount of money we’re spending on it and we’re destroying habitat and watersheds.

Hunting at Upper Missouri River Breaks, Montana. PHOTO BY BOB WICK

M.O.: In your current campaign [for Congress] I understand you’re emphasizing a platform of conservation and environmentalism. Perhaps your involvement with the Montana Headwaters Legacy Act could be an illustration of what you mean by this. Can you explain what the act is, and what your role is?

R.Z.: I think it’s so important to make sure you have support of a local community, and that means talking to the counties, making sure you shape your plan where it fits because one size doesn’t fit all. And my work has been largely to make sure that we get the county commissioners on board and we do a process so it stands the test of time. If you’re going to put effort behind something, then as a SEAL, you look at situation, you look at mission and how you win. And so I’ve been helpful I think in steering them and they’ve done a good job and it is very aggressive in their beginning and now they’re doing the hard work of going through and maybe modifying some of the sticking points, but doing the hard work and getting support of the county commissioners and in Montana.

M.O.: Many conservationists say rivers are the lifeblood of a landscape, of an ecosystem, of our Earth. Montana sits at the headwaters of our country’s most life-giving river systems. As a Montanan, do you feel a certain responsibility to protecting that resource?

R.Z.: I think our rivers, the lakes in Montana are special. That’s why Montana has provisions of public access that are different than, let’s say, our neighbor to the south, Wyoming. There is value in protecting the experience of a river.

M.O.: M.O.: How do you hope places like Montana look 20 or 50 years from now?

R.Z.: Well, I hope that we look at corridors, improve public access, [that] we look at improving the health of our forests and restore some of the habitat that’s been burned to the ground. It’d be nice to spend less money fighting fires and more money on trails and facilities and access and preservation. There’s also better uses of money than fighting fire. So, process improvement. But I’m confident that again, it’s a Montana issue more than it is a red or blue issue on public lands.

M.O.: This issue of Mountain Outlaw is about understanding the West as a concept that is “in the eye of the beholder.” What is the American West to you? How would you define it, and how would you characterize your own sense of place here?

R.Z.: I would say preservation of values, traditional lifestyle of freedom and choice of how you make a living. … Montanans have an independent streak as well … We’re conservative in our values and fiscally conservative, but we just don’t like to be told what to do. And we definitely don’t like to be told what to do by a federal government that doesn’t know where we live. That bothers us. So a lot of the pushing back [while] oftentimes well-intended, we view as interference or interference on our traditional way of life.

Tradition is an important one, and that’s hunting, fishing, the outdoor experience and making sure that we don’t build condos on the rivers and ruin the very reason why we’re here.

Mira Brody is the VP of Media for Outlaw Partners.