Q&A: Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Monument Designations, Conservation and More

In March, the U.S. Senate confirmed Deb Haaland as the Secretary of the Department of the Interior. We recently spoke with Secretary Haaland about President Biden’s America the Beautiful initiative, along with her plans to address the needs of Black, Indigenous and other people of color, and efforts to transition to cleaner energy sources on public lands, among other things.

In March, the U.S. Senate confirmed Deb Haaland as the Secretary of the Department of the Interior. We recently spoke with Secretary Haaland about President Biden’s America the Beautiful initiative, along with her plans to address the needs of Black, Indigenous and other people of color, and efforts to transition to cleaner energy sources on public lands, among other things.

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Why her installment matters: A 35th generation New Mexican and member of the Pueblo of Laguna, Haaland is the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history.

As Interior Secretary, she oversees agencies that include the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She also manages nearly 500 million acres of public lands, which includes leading conservation efforts and influencing decisions about resource extraction. Management of U.S. public lands has implications for the climate—nearly 40% of all coal production and about 22% of oil production in the U.S. occurs on public lands and waters. These processes emit greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming. A warming planet affects recreationists—hotter summers, shorter winters, an increase in natural disasters and poor snowpack are all connected to climate change.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On her recommendation to President Biden about whether to restore or expand Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments.

Haaland: “The cultural history, the landscape, the science behind why these areas are important is absolutely something we want the President to look at. Also, my purpose in visiting Utah [in April] was to talk to people, to bring hope to the table, to have a voice in the important decision that will be made by the President and really in the report that we plan to send to President Biden. It’s going to essentially bring all those voices to the table, so he knows how people close to those areas feel about those two incredible landscapes.”

Why does this matter? The report Haaland is referring to is her recommendation to President Biden regarding whether to restore the original monument boundaries. President Clinton designated about 1.7 million acres in 1996 to be protected as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. In 2016, President Obama established 1.35 million acres as Bear Ears National Monument. Both presidents used the Antiquities Act, which allowed them to protect lands of historic, prehistoric or scientific interest from development. But in 2017, the Trump administration drastically shrank both monuments, leaving the region, known for its cultural significance and diverse plant and animal life, vulnerable to development.

Haaland submitted the confidential report in early June (a few weeks after this interview), and it was later made public. In the report, she ultimately asked that both monuments be fully restored, according to The Washington Post.

Indigenous groups, who visit the region to connect with their ancestors and the land, as well as other advocates, have lobbied for the redesignation of the national monuments. A group of Southwestern tribes has asked that President Biden expand the Bears Ears National Monument beyond its original Obama-era designation. Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, though often referred to together, are distinct landscapes with their own rich histories. The latter spans five life zones, from low-lying desert to coniferous forest, and in prehistoric times was inhabited by Anasazi and Fremont cultures. Its fossils have provided vital information about ecosystems at the end of the dinosaur era. Bears Ears is sacred to many Native American tribes, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, Hopi Nation and Zuni Tribe. It is home to rock art, ceremonial sites and other artifacts.

Haaland visited the monuments in April and spoke with tribal leaders, elected officials and stakeholders invested in redesignating the monuments. Her recommendation to President Biden was in part informed by that visit.

On determining new monument boundaries if they are redrawn.

Haaland: “What I will say is the tribal voices are extremely important to President Biden. One of his priorities is to ensure that tribal council consultation is happening in these important decisions. And in fact, we spoke with tribes when we were in Utah, so that part of those conversations are going into the report as well. But the Antiquities Act, that is for the president. … He will make that decision based on input from scientists, from people on the ground and the report that we give. And it will be his decision.”

What happens next?

Biden could use the 1906 Antiquities Act to restore the monuments to their original bounds. He has not yet announced a decision.

Thousands of people converged on the steps of Utah’s State Capital building in December 2017 to protest President Trump’s plan to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

On how the Interior Department plans to support the Biden administration’s America the Beautiful initiative to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.

Haaland: “The recently announced America the Beautiful campaign (formerly known as 30 by 30) is an exciting initiative. We think it’s so important to think about the future, conserving at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by the year 2030. That is what the scientists have said we need to do to make sure we can fend off the biggest climate crisis that we face, and the way to look at it is it’s an initiative that will involve the entire country. … I think it’s an exciting opportunity for all of us to unite around a conservation goal, and I feel very positive about it. And that’s another decision the President will be making. The administration recently released a report outlining the key principles that will guide our conservation efforts, which we will continue to undertake with broad engagement, including agricultural and forest landowners, fishers, outdoor enthusiasts, Tribal Nations, states, territories, local officials, and other important partners and stakeholders to identify strategies that reflect the priorities of all communities.”

What is the America the Beautiful initiative? The goal of the initiative is to conserve 30 percent of the country’s lands and waters by 2030. President Biden committed to the conservation target in January 2021. In May, Haaland, along with other federal agency leaders, submitted to the National Climate Task Force a report detailing a 10-year plan for achieving the goal. The paper maps out six areas of focus, including supporting tribal-led conservation, increasing outdoor recreation access and creating more parks in nature-deprived communities.

On how the Interior Department will prioritize programs like the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program (ORLP) that increase park equity.

Haaland: “We feel very strongly that if we make our national parks or public lands accessible to as many people as possible, they will find what some of us have found in the outdoors, which is a love for nature. And those folks will spend more time in nature and continue to be as consistent in protecting our natural environment. So, the ORLP partnership is super important. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, I was really happy to support that even as a member of Congress, so I look forward to seeing the growth and development of both of those.

What I’ll say is the ORLP is the only LWCF [nationally] competitive grant program dedicated to addressing the recreational gap in underserved urban areas. That’s where we need to make sure those opportunities exist. We have a lot of open land in the West, but we’re largely an urban country. I think about 80 percent of our population is living in cities and urban areas, so I mean those folks need to get outdoors as much as anybody, so we’re happy about that and looking forward to working on it.”

What is ORLP? The Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program provides state funding to acquire land, improve parks or create play areas for kids, particularly in urban and underserved communities. It is an extension of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Congress created in 1964 to invest in public lands and waters using royalties from offshore energy development. ORLP is one example of a program aimed at improving access to quality parks in the U.S.  

On encouraging the innovation of clean energy production on public lands.

Haaland: “Our public lands belong to every single American, and every single American should benefit from what our public lands have to offer. … Supporting our clean energy project is a win-win situation because at the same time we’re fighting climate change, we’re also working on a return for the American people. Our public lands emit [nearly] 25% of our carbon into the atmosphere here in the United States, and it would be really terrific if we could begin to work on our net-zero as President Biden has stated, so we’re going to do as much as we can with respect to those conservation and clean energy efforts.”

Why does this matter? During her confirmation hearing, Haaland said she supports implementing clean energy solutions, such as renewables, that have a significantly lesser environmental impact compared to fossil fuel extraction. Critics of the Biden administration’s policies, such as the executive order to pause new oil and coal leases on federal lands, have expressed worry about a move away from fossil fuel extraction, which is a major revenue generator in some states. Meanwhile, others have urged her to push clean energy options in order to combat the climate crisis. Haaland, for her part, has said that she plans to support innovation of cleaner solutions on public lands, but that it won’t happen overnight.

On addressing the concerns of BIPOC communities when considering resource extraction on public lands.

Haaland: “I’m so grateful that President Biden and Vice President Harris are great leaders in this space and environmental justice is something that they have made clear from the beginning. Everyone in this entire country deserves clean air, clean water, clean land, and I know that an unequal burden of pollution has fallen on those communities of color and poor communities. I myself come from a community that has borne the brunt of mineral exploration and extraction with incredibly detrimental impacts to people’s health and water resources and even infrastructure. And so, when we think about clean energy development, we need to consider the impacts to people’s health and what they’ve had to live with, the legacy of pollution that some communities have lived with for a very long time.

Moving into transitioning into clean energy is something we’ve put off for such a long time, and now is the time we face a climate crisis and a crisis, quite frankly, that doesn’t discriminate. We want to ensure that the idea of environmental justice is at the top of our list, so moving those kinds of projects into communities where folks can benefit from them who haven’t had the benefits of that kind of infrastructure is an opportunity to really make a difference in people’s lives.”

Why is this important? Climate change disproportionately affects BIPOC communities, in part because they are more likely to live in areas with heavy pollution. BIPOC communities are disproportionately affected by nearly all emissions sources, according to a 2021 study that explored the impacts of fine particulate matter air pollution. Particulates from pollution are responsible for 85,000 to 200,000 deaths a year in the U.S.

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