Trump is reorganizing the public land Leviathan - and DC bureaucrats are not happy

Not since the Reagan administration has the Secretary of Interior received so much attention. Then Reagan’s interior secretary, James Watt, without the aid of a Twitter account, polarized the electorate saying there are “liberals and Americans.” That and other provocative statements led Time Magazine to include him in its list of the “Top 10 Worst Cabinet Members.”

President Trump’s Interior secretary Ryan Zinke’s language may not be inflammatory enough to get him on the list, but his policies certainly have kept the agency that manages 700,000 square miles in the headlines. After locking horns with environmentalists and outdoor equipment suppliers over his recommendation to reduce two huge Utah national monuments from 3.2 million acres to 1.1 million acres, Zinke proposed reorganizing his department giving more authority to regional offices. His reasoning was that managers with their feet on the ground have the most knowledge of their resources in order to foster multiple use management, the mission of the Department of Interior. This decentralizaiton explains a lot of the pushback in Washington and from environmental groups who have had and want to maintain their power.

Secretary Zinke is in good company with his proposed reorganization. In 1889, John Wesley Powell, the famous explorer of the Colorado River and the first European to float through the Grand Canyon, was asked to address the Montana Constitutional Convention. He suggested that the counties should be organized around drainage basins because people of the drainage basin “are more interested than any other people” in how the resources will be managed. When he added that “the government of the United States should cede all of the lands of that drainage basin to the people who live in that basin,” Powell was greeted with thunderous applause.

Zinke has not gone quite as far as Powell suggested, but his reorganization is definitely aimed at putting more decision making power at the local level. Believing that the Department of Interior is “mismanaging and squandering our assets through a layered bureaucracy,” Zinke wants to move assets and decision making authority “to the front lines,” something western state and local officials have wanted since the Sage Brush Rebellion in the late 1970s. He hopes the reorganization will improve recreational access, simplify environmental reviews, and speed up the permitting process for everything from energy development to proactive steps for managing timber to reduce the threat of wildfires.

Rather than expanding the bureaucracies that manage the one-third of the nation’s land owned by the federal government and forcing environmental regulations on those who bear the costs, the Trump administration seems to have an ear outside the Beltway.

This reorganization proposal fits a pattern for natural resource and environmental management that is evolving under the Trump administration. Call it environmental federalism. In downsizing Utah’s national monuments, Trump has called for local management to include Indian tribes, arguably the people with the biggest interest in preserving the region’s antiquities. When President Obama created Bears Ears National Monument, he pledged management consultation with Native Americans. Trump, however, wants the Monument Management Plan to include one member each from the Hopi Nation, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, and Zuni Tribe.

By “moving assets to the front lines” Zinke means to shift a significant number of 70,000 bureaucrats in the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service from Washington, D.C., to locations where the agencies’ lands are located. Not surprisingly, agency employees are skeptical of the reorganization. As Sally Jewell, former Secretary of Interior under Obama, sees it, the reorganization is “not as an attempt to streamline, but an attempt to downsize.”

Similarly, environmental groups headquartered in D.C., where they have had a stranglehold on western resource issues, don’t want to see their power base move west. Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s public lands program, called the reorganization “a solution in search of a problem.” The fear is that any movement of management to areas where people actually live on the land will favor multiple use as opposed to preservation. Sharon Buccino, senior director for lands at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “Virtually everything Secretary Zinke has done to date has been to advance fossil fuel interests — above the stewardship of our public lands, preservation of wildlife and protection of clean air and water.”

Environmental federalism may be the conservation legacy of this administration. Rather than expanding the bureaucracies that manage the one-third of the nation’s land owned by the federal government and forcing environmental regulations on those who bear the costs, the Trump administration seems to have an ear outside the Beltway. In addition to downsizing national monuments and reorganizing land management agencies, President Trump has rolled back more than 60 executive order environmental regulations ranging from Obama’s clean power plan to his delay of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Environmental federalism will not only inject more on-the-ground knowledge into land and environmental management, it could also reduce polarization by bringing opposing parties face-to-face in the coffee shops that are the heart of rural America. 

Terry L. Anderson is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and at the Property and Environment Research Center, Bozeman, Montana. His most recent book is Free Market Environmentalism for the Next Generation (2015).