“It is very clear that Montana is treated very differently,” said Chris Saeger, a Whitefish resident who leads a conservation group called the Western Values Project.
And in recent weeks, Mr. Zinke has promised to commit “whatever it takes” to rebuilding a cherished century-old backcountry chalet not far from here — a potentially expensive proposition that is sure to earn him points at home.
In an interview, Mr. Zinke said his Montana decisions were consistent with a longstanding belief that some areas “are too sensitive” for development and that he was not treating his home state differently than the rest of the nation.
“I don’t think that’s supported by the facts,” he said, pointing out that he recently halted the sale of oil and gas leases near New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon and pushed for coastal redevelopment in Louisiana. “I do listen to Montanans the same way I listen to Palau or the Virgin Islands.”
Mr. Zinke is one of half a dozen current and former Trump officials entangled in controversy over their use of government funds.
One watchdog agency, the United States Office of Special Counsel, is considering whether two of Mr. Zinke’s taxpayer-funded trips to speak alongside Republican politicians violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in government-funded political activity. And another, the Interior Department’s Inspector General, is examining whether Mr. Zinke’s travel violated rules.
(The Office of Special Counsel is a longstanding agency that is not related to Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.)
On Monday, a partial report found that Mr. Zinke’s travel practices “generally followed relevant law,” but called into question a $12,000 publicly funded charter flight the secretary took from a dinner with a Nevada hockey team to Whitefish, where the Western Governors’ Association was holding its annual meeting.
The hockey team is owned by Bill Foley, a top donor of Mr. Zinke’s who also owns much of Whitefish.
The report said that a government ethics team approved the trip with incomplete information from Mr. Zinke’s staff, which failed to mention, for example, the cost of the flight, the fact that the team’s owner had funded Mr. Zinke’s campaigns, and the fact that the secretary’s speech to hockey players would not mention the Department of the Interior.
“If ethics officials had known Zinke’s speech would have no nexus to the DOI,” the report says, “they likely would not have approved this as an official event.”
The secretary called the investigation “a distraction.”
“I followed every procedure,” he said, “every policy, every rule, and most importantly, I followed the law.”
Mr. Zinke, 56, is a fifth-generation Montanan who has raced up the political ladder in recent years. A former football star, he served 23 years in the Navy SEALs. During his time there, he helped snatch a reviled Bosnian Serb war criminal, but was also punished for abuse of travel expenses.
He entered politics in 2009, serving four years in the State Senate and two years as Montana’s sole representative in the United States House, before joining the president’s cabinet. As secretary of the interior, he oversees about 500 million acres of public lands rich in cultural and natural resources, and the job requires him to balance conservation and development.
In all, he manages about a fifth of the country’s land mass, plus nearly two billion offshore acres.
In his early years in politics, Mr. Zinke courted environmentalists like Steve Thompson, an elk hunter and Whitefish resident who had been on the board of the Montana Conservation Voters. Mr. Thompson recalled receiving a call from Mr. Zinke in 2008.
“He said he was an environmental-minded Teddy Roosevelt Republican and was looking for MCV’s endorsement, and could he meet with me, could I support him, any advice?” Mr. Thompson said.