By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Wednesday confirmed President Donald Trump's pick to head the Interior Department as the White House seeks to increase fossil fuel production on federal lands.
Ryan Zinke, a U.S. Representative from coal-producing Montana, won confirmation by a vote of 68 to 31, with several Democrats joining Republicans, who lead the chamber.
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The former Navy SEAL commander is an avid hunter and angler who is popular with many outdoor enthusiasts, including Trump's son Donald Jr.
Many environmentalists, however, are concerned about Zinke's zeal for exploiting coal and other fossil fuels. As a one-term Congressman, Zinke worked to boost mining, including supporting an effort to end a coal leasing moratorium on federal lands. Forty percent of U.S. output comes from federal lands that are mostly in Wyoming and Montana.
In his confirmation hearing in January Zinke said he would consider an expansion of energy drilling and mining on federal lands but would ensure that sensitive areas were protected.
Democrats who voted against Zinke, including Senators Maria Cantwell and Chuck Schumer, questioned his support of fossil fuel development on federal lands.
"Congressman Zinke says he’s a dyed in the wool conservationist, but doesn’t have the record to back it up," said Schumer, the Senate's top Democrat. "That should concern every outdoor enthusiast, every lover of our great and grand national parks."
Zinke will head an agency that employs more than 70,000 people across the country and oversees more than 20 percent of federal land, including national parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite.
Fellow Republican Senator Steve Daines, also from Montana, said Zinke "knows we must strike a balance between conservation and responsible energy development."
The White House is expected to issue an executive order soon reversing former President Barack Obama's temporary moratorium on coal leasing on U.S. lands, which is part of a wider review of the program.
The Senate is also expected to easily confirm Trump's pick to head the Department of Energy, Rick Perry, a former governor of Texas, this week.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Paul Tait and Chizu Nomiyama)