U.S. House candidates Greg Gianforte and Kathleen Williams differ sharply on natural resource and conservation issues, which are sure to be taken up in Congress during the next Montana representative's tenure.

The candidates outlined their differences for Lee Montana Newspapers. Their differences were particularly stark on whether a culture of corruption exists at the Department of the Interior, and whether the House Natural Resources Committee should investigate. Former Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke is Interior secretary. And four of Montana’s last five representatives, Gianforte included, have served on the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Rep. Gianforte, a Republican and Democratic Williams are vying for Montana’s only U.S. House seat. Voting is underway and ends Nov. 6. Libertarian Elinor Swanson is also on the ballot.

We asked Gianforte and Williams about five issues.

Democrats on the House Committee on Natural Resources said in September that, if they win control the House, they will call for an investigation of what ranking member Rep. Raul Grijalva called a “culture of corruption” at the Department of the Interior. Specifically, Democrats want to investigate Interior Secretary Zinke’s taxpayer-funded travel to political fundraisers, the removal of climate change references from government websites and a Whitefish real estate transaction between a parks foundation established by Zinke and an executive from Halliburton developing land in Whitefish.

Is an investigation into Zinke needed?

Williams: I believe Congress has the obligation to look at what Secretary Zinke and all federal agencies are doing. There are things Interior is doing well, but there may also be truth to the allegations against him. The problem is that no oversight is happening. Congressman Gianforte chairs an oversight subcommittee that includes Secretary Zinke and the Interior Department, but Gianforte’s hearings don’t dig into any problems; in fact, his hearing in Hamilton didn’t even allow for public comment. Congress can’t just be a rubber stamp for the administration, and I promise to uphold the Constitution to effectively shine a bright light of transparency, which is Congress’ responsibility.

Gianforte: President Trump has assembled a uniquely qualified Cabinet. A farmer leads the Department of Agriculture. The former governor of an energy-producing state runs the Department of Energy. A Montanan, who understands our way of life and the importance of our public lands, leads the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Secretary Zinke’s successes stand in stark contrast to his predecessors from the Obama administration. Multiple use has returned to our public lands. Employing an all-of-the-above approach to energy, America is seeing greater production from on- and offshore sources. America is moving from energy dependence to energy dominance.

Secretary Zinke’s initiative to use military installations for coal exports is also a step in the right direction. America can ensure our strategic allies, including South Korea and Japan, have access to cleaner Powder River Basin coal.

If there are issues in any government agency, I am confident the professional, nonpolitical Inspectors General will investigate and release their findings. Spending time subpoenaing officials is a page out of the Pelosi playbook and takes away from addressing important issues on our public lands.

What changes would you make to the permitting process for coal, oil and gas leasing on public land? Do you think royalties are being fairly assessed? Is the environmental review process effective?

Williams: All Montanans and Americans own our public lands, and we need to make sure, through public participation, that our lands are being managed responsibly. Corporations have been paying the same royalty amount since the 1980s; I wish I could pay the same amount for my groceries as they were in the ’80s. We need to have a conversation about whether or not that’s fair to all of us as taxpayers. I held public meetings on a variety of issues and proved Montanans could have civil conversations on thorny issues we’re passionate about. That’s the open and collaborative approach I’ll bring to Congress.

Gianforte: The federal permitting process for coal and gas leasing is out of control. The BLM takes almost 260 days to process an Application of Permit to Drill, while many states, which have more stringent environmental standards, process APDs in just 30 days. This discrepancy must be addressed.

I have cosponsored bills in the House that would encourage operators to drill in areas that have already undergone the NEPA process. Using a Notification of Proposed Drilling, operators could have a streamlined permitting process if the project will have little to no environmental impact. This reform encourages smart, environmentally sound permitting, while also reducing unnecessary hurdles. I also support commonsense reforms to the NEPA process, including narrowing the environmental scoping process to the actual proposed action, not the upstream and downstream effects of an action.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration announced that oil, gas and coal companies would no longer have to compensate the government for damage done to federal land during energy development. Who benefits most from this decision and what does it mean for the public?

Williams: Our public lands belong to all Montanans and all Americans. When corporations don’t respect our public lands, all of us as taxpayers are on the hook to clean up the mess. While America needs to continue to be a leader in energy development, we can’t do it at the expense of our outdoor heritage, which, in Montana alone, is a $7.1 billion industry and creates 71,000 jobs. Corporations need to take the same responsibility we all do if we make a mess; they need to clean it up.

Gianforte: The Bureau of Land Management’s move to end requirements for offsite mitigation for development projects is a small step in reducing unnecessary permitting hurdles. It is important to understand what the new policy does and what it doesn’t do. It does not change requirements for the actual site, does not prevent a company from voluntarily going the extra mile to address concerns of interested parties, and does not forbid state agencies from requiring further efforts. It does prevent the BLM from requiring companies to pay environmental groups to have the federal government approve a permit. I believe we can responsibly develop our natural resources on public lands and protect the environment, and I will continue to support permitting reforms to achieve that goal.

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House Republicans would like to rewrite the Endangered Species Act. If you think this step is necessary, please explain why and what changes to ESA you support. If you oppose this revision of ESA, explain your position. Do you think the ESA is useful and functional as it now exists? Please name any species you think should be de-listed.

Williams: Having worked with farmers and ranchers I know we can find ways to advance production and wildlife habitat. I have a 35-year career in natural resources finding win-win-win solutions and am absolutely committed to our public lands. Populations change and our laws protecting wildlife should change with them. However, we don’t need a top-down approach from Washington politicians that doesn’t take into account what’s happening on the ground. The bills that Congressman Gianforte voted for ignore the science of managing wildlife populations and threaten our outdoor heritage. The ESA already takes into account economic impacts along with impacts to at-risk species.

Gianforte: I have a deep respect for our outdoors, and support protecting the diverse wildlife that inhabits it. We can support multiple use of our lands while also conserving truly endangered species, and one way to do that is to modernized the decades old Endangered Species Act.

Unfortunately, extremists have abused the existing law to shut down needed projects across Montana, including responsible forest management, natural resource development, farming and ranching.

The Intake diversion dam is one example. It is intended to help species, like the pallid sturgeon, recover and to provide reliable water to more than 400 family farms. Frivolous litigation has thrown both pallid sturgeon and family farms into limbo as activists abuse the ESA.

We have seen what the proper application of the ESA can do. We can continue those successes, but we must resolve the flaws of the ESA and modernize the ESA.

Despite bipartisan support the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Congress continually struggles to keep LWCF funding continuous. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop has proposed tying LWCF with National Park maintenance. What do you think of Bishop’s proposal? What would you proposed Congress do for LWCF? Would you appropriate the full $900 million authorized for the program?

Williams: I support permanent re-authorization and full funding of LWCF. Without using any individual taxpayer dollars, it’s invested in baseball and soccer fields as well as better access to places we love to hunt, fish, and hike. Unfortunately, Congress kicked the can down the road and let LWCF expire and has refused to fully fund it. There’s a bill to fully fund LWCF that Congressman Gianforte hasn’t even signed on to. He’s even voted to reduce funding for LWCF. On top of all of that, Congressman Gianforte has a record of rolling back protections for public lands, from suing the people of Montana to close access to the East Gallatin River, to introducing bills, without any public input, that jeopardize over 700,000 acres of wilderness study areas. On public lands, Montanans need to have their voices heard. I will continue traveling the state listening as Montana’s voice in Washington.

Gianforte: Montanans are passionate about our public lands. Susan and I raised our kids hunting, fishing, and backpacking on them. The Land and Water Conservation Fund helps preserve and expand our access to our public lands, and I know how important the fund is to Montana. In fact, I have voted three times for its permanent re-authorization. Tying LWCF to desperately need national parks maintenance has created a path for permanent re-authorization. I will continue being a strong advocate for increasing public access to our public lands, permanently re-authorizing LWCF, and fully funding it.

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