This is the fourth article in our “Beyond 1600” series, in which we asked some Obama-era Cabinet officials to write essays to explain to our readers—and to the Biden-era counterparts—the challenges they encountered in their positions and the keys to success they discovered. Journalist Jonathan Alter, who has written acclaimed accounts of three administrations, wrote the overview. Jason Furman wrote about being the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors. Ernest Moniz wrote about being energy secretary. One more piece, from Jacob Lew, will post Friday.
Over the course of my 45-year career, no job has been more complicated, nor more impactful, than my time serving the public as U.S. Secretary of the Interior. It was the privilege of a lifetime and a lot harder than running a business.
Following the Departments of State, Treasury, Defense, and Justice, Interior was created in 1849 as the Home Department, overseeing the nation’s internal affairs and jokingly called “the Department of Everything Else.” Today’s Interior Department and its 70,000 dedicated employees have direct oversight of more than 500 million acres of land (about 20 percent of the country) and 1.7 billion acres of mineral rights in U.S. waters offshore. It is charged with upholding trust and treaty obligations to more than 570 indigenous, sovereign nations within the United States, facilitating self-governance, self-determination, and engagement across federal agencies. It is the primary liaison agency to U.S. Territories in the Pacific and Caribbean. It saves species from extinction; furthers earth and biological science to understand and address climate change, natural hazards, and biodiversity; operates dams and facilities to administer water in the West; and oversees resource development on public lands and waters, ensuring safety and environmental regulations are upheld. It also provides ample opportunity for the public to experience our nation’s rich natural, cultural, and historic treasures, supporting a wide diversity of outdoor recreation activities while driving economic benefits to local communities. Carrying out this complex mission relies on committed, experienced public servants who deserve respect, consistent leadership, and advocacy for their work in support of the diverse interests of the American public.
The organizing statutes that govern Interior frequently create conflicting mandates and cultures within and between its ten bureaus and their respective missions. Actions that impact federal lands require compliance with bedrock environmental laws, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), often requiring land use compromises in support of ecosystem sustainability. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) administers the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA)—both designed to ensure lands and waters provide conditions conducive to thriving biodiversity across all species, at times restricting development that is deemed to have unacceptable impacts. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has a mandate of “multiple use and sustained yield,” overseeing land use for commercial activities like grazing, energy development, mining, transmission (wires and pipelines), recreation, and conservation—all of which generate revenue for the U.S. Treasury, although often at bargain prices. The National Park Service oversees the unique natural, cultural, and historic places that help define our nation and its journey, balancing long-term protection with public enjoyment. The Bureau of Reclamation confronts the challenge of providing sustainable, secure water supplies at a time of growing water demand and reduced supply due to climate change and drought. The Bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education provide direct services to tribes, while ensuring that all federal agencies conduct meaningful consultation with tribal nations on actions that impact them, upholding the spirit and letter of our nation’s commitments. And the remaining bureaus—the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)—also have unique mandates. In brief, it is complicated.
The greatest successes I witnessed as Secretary of the Interior were driven by deep collaboration with people and organizations of very different perspectives, interests, and ideologies, brought together to build trusting relationships that enabled them to find common ground. Like the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, supporting renewable energy development in areas of high energy potential and minimal conflict across the Mojave Desert. And protection of incredibly important cultural and natural treasures in Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, advocated for by five tribal nations, in collaboration with political leaders, local communities, and a wide variety of stakeholders. And the epic collaboration by many states, federal land managers, ranchers, industry, environmental organizations, and other stakeholders resulting in protection of critical habitat across 140-plus million acre “Sagebrush Sea” in the American West, home to more than 350 species, including the greater sage grouse—a candidate species for listing under the ESA. And a pilot program, approved by Congress as an experiment inspired by the Obama Administration’s Power Plus proposal, that put underemployed coal miners to work in Appalachia, reclaiming lands damaged by abandoned mines that remain very dangerous to local communities, while opening doors to sustainable economic activity.
Despite subsequent efforts to undo several of these and other collaborative efforts, the trusting relationships built in the process, and underlying engagement with stakeholders to understand shared facts and perspectives in search of common ground, are likely to result in actions to uphold these thoughtful efforts in the long run.
Most of my career has been in business—oil and gas development, commercial banking, and retail. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, regulations are critical—rules that level the playing field, provide predictability, hold bad actors accountable, and enable businesses to operate in harmony with human and environmental needs. Through many opportunities to interact with mentors like the late Bill Ruckelshaus, first administrator of the EPA under the Nixon Administration, I have come to appreciate the importance of thoughtful regulations, including those he shaped like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, and sensible actions like mileage standards in cars, and cap and trade mechanisms to address acid rain. These and other regulatory changes, like efforts to regulate methane, update decades-old fossil fuel leasing practices, and modernize laws like the General Mining Act of 1972—all unfinished business from my time in government—have the potential to unlock business innovation aligned with a sustainable future for public lands and people. In addition, reinstating collaboratively crafted environmental laws and regulations that have been weakened by the Trump Administration, including NEPA, ESA, MBTA, methane emissions restrictions, fracking, stream protection and more, are important to bring certainty to industry while reducing environmental harms. Pausing further leasing for fossil fuel extraction on public lands should be instituted while these programs are reviewed—there are many years of supply on the shelf that are already leased and permitted, and it is costly to the taxpayer and difficult to reverse leasing decisions.
A shared understanding of the value of public lands to our health and wellbeing, far beyond their development value, is also important to recognize and communicate widely. The USGS has done important work in this regard through assessing the benefits of natural ecosystem services from lands across the country. It is my hope that our government will show leadership in supporting the concept of 30 percent of the earth protected by 2030, advocated for by many scientists and global organizations. These efforts would ensure that intact forests remain to clean our air and water while absorbing and storing carbon; that wetlands remain to absorb flood waters while providing habitat for diverse species critical for biodiversity and human health; that dunes, reefs, and mangrove forests remain to protect coastal communities from storms and sea level rise; and that access to the natural world continues to support the health and wellbeing of all species—including humans—as so many of us have deeply appreciated while hunkered down during the pandemic. It is also past time to build on early steps taken during the Obama Administration to listen to and build authentic and respectful partnerships with tribal nations, who have thousands of years of lived experiences that can be brought to bear in support of sustainable land stewardship.
By learning from our past decisions, recognizing their impact, listening to different perspectives, and updating our practices and laws, we have an opportunity to work collaboratively in a way that brings our country together by making investments that will sustain jobs and economic activity in harmony with the natural world.
In balancing the competing demands experienced during my four years as U.S. Secretary of the Interior, I reflected often on my favorite proverb: “We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” The Department of the Interior is in the forever business, stewarding public lands and upholding commitments to indigenous tribal nations, requiring decisions that impact not just this generation, but many generations to follow.
The Biden Administration faces formidable challenges. A global pandemic and severe economic disruption, rapidly accelerating climate change and its devastating impacts on people and the environment, deep rifts and ideologies across our population, and severe unrest from dangerous and disruptive forces within and outside our nation that are not unfamiliar based on militant activities on public lands experienced during my tenure. Creating opportunities to listen to different points of view, agreeing on a shared set of facts based on the best available science, and crafting solutions to challenges that honor common ground will be critical to moving past this unsettled time and into a sustainable future for our economy, our environment, our democracy, and our reputation in the world.