Some 170 years ago, Congress assembled the Department of Interior (DOI) to govern the country’s public lands. Today, that includes nearly 500 million acres that span vermillion canyons, old-growth forests, urban oases and lands rich with natural resources. When people think of these places, their minds may drift to a favorite national park—the places of summer road trips, family day hikes and, more recently, reprieve from the stress and daily monotony of a global pandemic.
But these public spaces are more than places of recreation. Nearly 40 percent of all coal produced in the United States comes from public lands. About 22% of U.S. oil production and 12% of its gas production are done on public lands and waters. Some people contest this use—in whole or in part—due to a land’s cultural significance, drilling or development’s degradation of the environment, and other factors. Others want the extraction because it creates jobs and is a major source of revenue for some states. For its part, the Interior Department manages these competing interests, which involves maintaining relationships with tribal communities to inform its decisions. But moves to open up protected land to resource extraction and development have undermined those relationships in recent years.
For instance, the department’s most recent secretary, former oil and energy lobbyist David Bernhardt, helped open land during his tenure to oil and gas leasing, including 1.56 million acres in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Trump administration made it easier for extraction to happen on those lands by relaxing key environmental policies, including one that protects the public review process of proposed environmental projects. Prior to Bernhardt, the Trump administration, informed by a report compiled by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, shrunk the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument created by the Obama administration by 85% and the neighboring 1.88-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by about 50% to open the lands to oil and gas leasing. Indigenous groups still visit the region as a way to connect with their ancestors and the land.
That’s in part why the confirmation of the newest Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, a 35th generation New Mexican and member of the Pueblo of Laguna, is monumental. Her confirmation marks a major shift in how the Interior Department has historically operated. She’s the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history, with ancestral ties to the land she’ll help govern. Supporters have lauded Haaland for her science-backed, equity-focused approach to managing public lands. Her critics worry she wants to do away with fossil fuel extraction—a sentiment echoed by several senators during her confirmation hearings in March. And while it remains to be seen just what will happen under her leadership (Will she reestablish monuments like Bears Ears? How much of the land she governs will remain open to resource-extraction?), one thing is certain: It won’t be like the last few years.
What might change under Haaland’s leadership?
Haaland has spoken about her priorities as interior secretary—among them, prioritizing science when managing natural resources and addressing the climate crisis.
“As our country faces the impacts of climate change and environmental injustice, the Interior Department has a role to address these challenges,” Haaland said in a December speech accepting the nomination of interior secretary. “And we will ensure that the decisions at Interior will once again be driven by science.”
This largely applies to how DOI and its agencies, which include the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service (NPS), manage lands under its jurisdiction. It extends to whether to open land to resource extraction and would apply, for instance, to decisions involving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the area formerly protected by the Bears Ears National Monument. Science is likely to inform Haaland’s decision-making and how she balances resource extraction, with its effects on people and the environment.
Haaland protested a variety of extraction projects during her time as chair of the New Mexico Democratic Party and U.S. Representative for New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, including the Keystone XL oil pipeline and hydraulic fracturing (or fracking). During her nomination hearings, Haaland said she would prioritize innovation in the clean energy space—including renewables—over fossil fuels, but acknowledged that “it’s not going to happen overnight.”
“We will absolutely rely on the fossil energy that you and the ranking members spoke about in your opening statements,” she said, addressing members of the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources. “But at the same time, I think we can move forward with the technology and innovation as well.”
Haaland has also propped up the Biden administration’s creation of the Civilian Climate Corps and Build Back Better plan as an avenue to create jobs rooted in conservation, stewardship and clean energy production.
U.S. Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, who served on two House subcommittees with Haaland, said he trusts her to understand the range of perspectives when managing public lands. He said she conceives that her role now as interior secretary is to navigate the different interests and uses for the lands.
“I think she perfectly understands that when we are dealing with the public lands of our country, which are public resources, there’s a continuum of utilization across those public lands,” he said. “She understands the complexity.”
How could this impact recreationists?
Haaland has championed efforts to increase park access, like the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which allocates billions of dollars to public lands. As secretary, she immediately deployed a $1.6 billion investment to improve transportation and recreation infrastructure on public lands, creating more than 19,000 jobs and contributing $2 billion to U.S. GDP this year. Given that she denounced the downsizing of Bears Ears and Grand Escalante, some anticipate that Haaland will also push to reestablish the monuments to their original size.
Jonathan Jarvis, who served as park service director from 2009 to 2017, said he predicts Haaland will encourage more collaboration among interior agencies, such as the park service, BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs as well as the Forest Service, within the Department of Agriculture. This support could help strengthen existing programs and lead to new ones that benefit recreationists. As an example, Jarvis referenced the Every Kid Outdoors program, which gives fourth-graders free admission to national parks. Collaboration among the agencies could lead to the development of new programs that make it easier for more people to get outside.
Additionally, Haaland has long been a champion of outdoor equity. Rep. Jesus Garcia, D-Ill., who worked with Haaland on improving public parks during her tenure as congresswoman for New Mexico, said he expects her to be active in increasing park access for all communities, and particularly for communities of color. He said he also hopes she encourages the establishment of more park space to urban areas.
Beyond recreationists, Haaland’s installment positions her to lift voices that have been silenced in the past—notably Indigenous, Black and other people of color communities who are personally affected by land management decisions because they have ancestral ties to the land or are more severely impacted by an increasingly warming planet and lack of park access.
“Having an ally in the administration who understands the importance of these spaces is very key,” Garcia said. “The reality is that there is an unequal distribution of green spaces and access to public lands. … I’m confident that Deb Haaland will approach this issue by using an equity lens.”