SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke lauded Mormon pioneers in a speech Tuesday at a rodeo in Utah where state leaders hope he’ll relocate the nation’s largest land management agency.
Zinke didn’t make any announcement about the future of the Bureau of Land Management, but the visit was another chance to tout Utah’s central location close to vast tracts the agency oversees in several Western states.
Zinke, who oversees the bureau, is considering moving its headquarters from Washington D.C., to the West. A decision could be made in the next six to eight months.
Republican Gov. Gary Herbert had a “good discussion” pitching Utah to Zinke, his Deputy Chief of Staff Paul Edwards said Tuesday.
Other states such as Colorado are also trying to lure the headquarters, he said.
Conservative Utah leaders have long chafed under the agency’s management of some 23 million acres of public land in the state and called for it to come under state control instead, but Edwards said that moving the agency headquarters West would be a step toward addressing their concerns.
The bureau manages nearly 388,000 square miles (1 billion square kilometers) nationwide, and 99 percent is in 12 Western states.
While other Western leaders agree the headquarters should be closer to the land it manages, bureau veterans say the agency needs a presence in Washington, D.C.
Zinke’s short Utah speech recognized Pioneer Day, a state holiday that recognizes the arrival of Mormon pioneers who trekked across the country in search of religious freedom.
“Today we have a man in the White House that respects religious freedom, and that man is Donald J. Trump,” Zinke, a former Montana congressman, said. The crowd at the Days of ’47 Rodeo cheered in response.
He read a proclamation from the president recognizing the accomplishments of settlers with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who “worked tirelessly to transform the arid desert landscape into a blossoming new home.”
Zinke then mounted a chestnut quarter horse named Cowboy and rode around the arena, waving to the crowd with fringed white gloves.
He was not available for questions from reporters Tuesday.
He spoke hours after a closed appearance in New Mexico at a conference of state attorneys general that was met by protests from environmental and native activists.
Though Trump foundered somewhat in Utah as voters balked at his brash style, many state officials cheered his move to downsize two national monuments last year. The decision was decried by Native American tribes and environmentalists.