Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has no intentions of selling federal land, contrary to a leaked memo from the White House proposing to use such sales to pay for infrastructure projects.
“The Secretary’s position is unchanged,” Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift wrote in an email to the Missoulian on Friday in response to an inquiry about the memo.
Zinke has been on record both as a Montana congressman and as Interior secretary that he opposes selling federal land to state or private interests. He resigned as a delegate to the Republican nominating convention in 2016 after the party included a plank on transferring federal land to states in its platform.
Nevertheless, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, considered the memo serious enough to demand a response from Zinke on Friday.
“I am deeply concerned by these reports, which, if true, would fly in the face of your repeated public commitments to not sell or transfer the management of our public lands to individual states,” Tester wrote.
“Federal management of these places has never been perfect, but selling off these resources would be a short-sighted budget gimmick that directly damages the outdoor heritage we leave for our kids and grandkids, and undercuts every aspect of our outdoor economy.”
The six-page memo, obtained by Politico and the Huffington Post, includes several mentions of raising money from federal assets. One “would establish through executive order the authority to allow for the disposal of Federal assets to improve the overall allocation of economic resources in infrastructure investment.”
A following Federal Capital Financing Fund would create “a mandatory revolving fund to finance purchases of federally owned civilian real property” that would “transfer money to agencies to finance large-dollar real property purchases." A separate section authorizes the Department of Veterans Affairs “to exchange land or facilities for lease of space.”
In its statement of principles, the plan proposed allowing states flexibility to charge tolls on interstate roads and reinvest that money in infrastructure and provide opportunities to commercialize interstate rest areas.
In her email, Swift said the memo did not appear to be an Interior Department document. The Poltico and Huffington Post stories said White House officials considered the memo part of a draft plan for infrastructure spending. President Donald Trump is expected to provide more details about his infrastructure proposal in his State of the Union address next week. Trump has hinted at a $1 trillion national infrastructure repair plan several times in the past year, but has provided no concrete details.
Tester’s office staff said they had received no response from Zinke late Friday afternoon.