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Agency managing vast US lands experiences year of upheaval

The North fork of the Boise River.

The North fork of the Boise River. The U.S. Interior Department, which is responsible for thousands of acres of public lands, has undergone tremendous upheaval in the last year. File photo.

A year of upheaval at the U.S. Interior Department has seen dozens of senior staff members reassigned and key leadership positions left unfilled, rules considered burdensome to industry shelved, and a sweeping reorganization proposed for its 70,000 employees.

The evolving status quo at the agency responsible for more than 780,000 square miles of public lands, mostly in the West, has prompted praise from energy and mining companies and Republicans, who welcomed the departure from perceived heavy-handed regulation under President Barack Obama.

But the changes have drawn increasingly sharp criticism from conservationists, Democrats and some agency employees. Under President Donald Trump, the critics say, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has curbed outside input into how land administered by the agency is used, and elevated corporate interests above the its duty to safeguard treasured sites.

The differing views illustrate longstanding tensions over the multifaceted role of America’s public lands — an amalgam of pristine wilderness retreats, recreational playgrounds and abundant energy reserves.

A year into his tenure, Zinke, a former U.S. Navy SEAL and Montana congressman, has emerged as the point person for the administration’s goal of American “energy dominance.” He’s targeted for elimination regulations perceived to hamper development of oil, natural gas and coal beneath public lands primarily in the West and Alaska.

He’s also sketched plans to realign the agency’s bureaucracy, trimming 4,600 jobs — about 7 percent of its workforce —and proposing a massive overhaul that would move decision-making out of Washington, D.C. and relocate headquarters staff to Western states at a cost of $17.5 million.

The intent is to delegate more power to personnel in the field who oversee activities ranging from mining, to livestock grazing to protecting endangered plants and animals.

Zinke models himself as a modern-day embodiment of Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation ethos, but laid out his reorganization vision to the agency employees via a “fireside chat” video that evoked another president: Franklin Roosevelt.

His actions have stirred dissent from both within and outside the agency — from his claim that one-third of Interior employees were disloyal to Trump, to a proposal to allow more drilling off America’s coasts while carving out an exception for Florida at the request of its Republican governor, Rick Scott.

Along with Zinke’s full-throated promotion of the Trump administration’s new agenda came the transfer of at least 35 senior Interior employees. Among them was Matthew Allen, who was demoted from his post as assistant director of communications at Interior’s U.S. Bureau of Land Management. He’s now in a newly created position, performing “nonspecific duties” in an Interior branch that oversees offshore drilling.

Allen filed a federal lawsuit in December challenging his reassignment as retaliation for his support of government transparency.

“There appears to be a collective effort to suppress information being shared with the public, the press and the Congress,” he said.

At the agency’s highest levels, 11 leadership positions remain vacant a year after Trump took office, including the directors of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.

Panels such as the National Park System Advisory Board have languished, according to a letter submitted by members of the board who resigned last month. Board Chairman and former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, complained requests to engage with Zinke’s team were ignored and members were concerned stewardship and protection of the parks was being pushed to the side.

When the Park Service in October proposed increasing entrance fees at 17 of the most highly visited parks — from Arches and Grand Canyon to Yellowstone and Zion — the board wasn’t consulted, said Carolyn Finney, a University of Kentucky geography professor who was among those who resigned.

“How do we make parks more accessible? It’s cost,” Finney said. She said the fee increase would hinder the ability of a “more diverse and wider group of the public to visit he park.”

The board’s charter had expired in December after it collected comments from more than 100 experts on how parks should deal with climate change, increase visitor diversity and protect wildlife.

Zinke’s associate deputy secretary, Todd Willens, called the resignations a “political stunt” because another meeting was planned and because the agency was working to renew its charter.

Similar action has been promised for idled advisory boards at the Bureau of Land Management. Under Trump, the charters for 22 state-level resource advisory councils — composed of local officials, business and environmental group representatives and others — had expired by the end of January.

Some expired months ago and at least 14 remained expired as of Friday. Interior Department representatives did not respond to numerous requests for information on the status of the other councils.

The councils make recommendations on activities that take place on public lands, such as whether off-road vehicles should be allowed in wildlife habitat or whether logging could help prevent wildfires.

Zinke suspended the panels for five months in May as part of a review of more than 200 boards and advisory committees. Some had not met in years. Congressional Democrats objected, saying the move would stifle non-governmental views on how U.S.-owned land is used.

Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift said it was “common practice” to periodically renew and refine the panels’ charters.

She said Zinke’s vision for the agency was “to manage public lands at the most local level possible” by making more decisions regionally. For example, she said Zinke wants to make sure hiking trails that start on land controlled by one agency division don’t just end when they reach land controlled by another division.

Oil and gas groups in particular have embraced the concept of change for an agency once seen as an obstacle to drilling. The withdrawal or cancellation of Obama-era rules on fracking and methane emissions from oil and gas exploration were positive first steps, they say.

Next comes getting Interior staff on board, said Kathleen Sgamma with the Western Energy Alliance, which promotes giving oil and gas companies access to federal lands.

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the House Natural Resources Committee’s ranking Democrat, said Zinke’s actions have made it easier to pollute federal lands and waters while giving special interest groups more influence.

“He’s in over his head,” Grijalva said.

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