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U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., has resigned as a delegate to the Republican nominating convention because of the party's position on the transfer of federal public lands to the states.

Montana's lone congressman, Zinke told The Gazette he withdrew after the Republican platform committee endorsed transferring federal lands. Zinke made his resignation public Friday. The decision was official a few days ago.

"What I saw was a platform that was more divisive than uniting," Zinke said. "At this point, I think it's better to show leadership."

The GOP draft platform reads: "Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to the states. We call upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power of influence to urge the transfer of those lands identified."

A reserve Montana delegate will have to be appointed to replace Zinke. Public lands have emerged as a political tripwire in the 2016 Montana elections.

Zinke will still deliver a speech about national security Monday to the Republican National Convention. 

Since mid-June, Zinke's Democratic challenger, Denise Juneau has accused the congressman of "voting to sell off public lands," by supporting a bill by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, that creates a 4-million acre pilot program for local management of federal lands. The federal government would keep ownership of the lands, under the pilot project."

Campaign factchecker Ballotpedia this week found Juneau's allegation to be false. 

However, Ballotpedia focused only the ownership of public lands, not transferring management of those lands, Juneau's campaign responded Friday. 

“Denise stands with Montana’s sportsmen and conservation groups opposed to HR 2316, which would transfer management of America’s public lands to politically appointed boards,” said Lauren Caldwell, Juneau campaign manager. “Denise is opposed to any attempt to chip away at management of and access to our public lands. Congressman Zinke cannot say the same. Both the Montana and National Republican Party platforms advocate for the transfer or sale of our land.” 

Zinke said he supports better management of federal land but doesn't support transferring those lands to the states.

Surrogates for both presidential candidates, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, have said the presumptive nominees won’t support a transfer of federal lands.

"Quite frankly, most Republicans don't agree with it and most Montanans don't agree with it," Zinke said of transferring federal lands to the states. "What we do agree on is better management."

In June, Zinke proposed appointing a “watchdog panel” of state, tribal and local government representatives and mining industry representatives to advise the Department of Interior on mineral leasing. House Democrats said Zinke's proposal gave too much power to local interests. 

The proposal, knows as the “Certainty for States and Tribes Act,” was in response to a suspension of new coal leases made by The Department of Interior earlier this year. Interior officials suspended leasing so the department could determine whether royalties on coal mined on federal land were set too low.

In coal country, the suspension was met with calls of mismanagement and a demand for local control of federal land. Similar arguments have arisen in northwest Montana as timber industry jobs have declined.


Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.