The Department of the Interior has been nicknamed “the department of everything else.” Since so many secretaries have come from the American West, we Westerners understand where that nickname comes from. Try to think about all the agencies and bureaus contained within the Department of Interior, then grab a bottle of aspirin.
A secretary of the interior must tend to agencies ranging from the Bureau of Reclamation, managing a network of dams that provide water to cities and farms and generate electricity, to the National Park Service, which responds to the desires of vigorous outdoor recreationists and less-vigorous car tourists, while overseeing the preservation and interpretation of the nation’s heritage of places that shape the nation’s sense of identity.
The multiple burdens that land on a Secretary of the Interior’s desk also arise from the internal operations of individual bureaus; the Bureau of Land Management, to use a conspicuous example, is charged with one of the most complicated sets of missions and tasks of any institution on the planet.
This leads us to the bad news that awaits former New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland who was just appointed secretary: with this range of agencies under her supervision, it is guaranteed that almost every action she takes is going to make some people very angry, leaving her with considerable range of choice on which people to make angry on which occasion.
This, in truth, can prove to be liberation. Since it will never work to please everyone, each secretary of the interior soon recognizes that her time in office presents her with extraordinary opportunities to orchestrate unexpected alliances and coalitions. Groups that face off in antagonism on one issue will find themselves aligned in unexpected cooperation (or perhaps indifference) on another issue.
Although there has been some progress in more storytelling and broader participation in decision-making, inclusive practices have happened in hit-or-miss and arbitrary ways. Only 8% of National Register sites and 3% of our National Historic Landmarks represent people of color, women, or members of other marginalized groups.
Under Haaland’s prospective leadership, Interior could finally take up a purposeful and thorough broadening of inclusivity in the outdoors and heritage spaces. The National Park Service oversees the preservation, protection, and interpretation of our nation’s heritage, within our parks and in communities across the nation. Guiding a national historic preservation program that engages all Americans with the places and stories that make up our national identity, the Park Service can tell the whole of our story, for the first time.
Haaland will have a unique chance to bridge the divide for an ecosystem and an economy, a divide that has been, for too long, accepted with fatalism. The outdoor recreation industry accounts for 2.1% of our Gross Domestic Product (over $458 Billion) surpassing industries such as mining, utilities, farming and ranching, and chemical products manufacturing. It is responsible for over 5 million American jobs.
Despite occasional efforts to pay attention, the lack of a dynamic political voice for this economy has been a feature of Interior’s “old normal.” And yet, at the state level, governors have started paying attention. Currently, 16 states have an office of outdoor recreation industry that is at once complementary to and different from typical “parks and recreation” or “parks and wildlife” offices. These offices provide oversight to economic development responding to the ever-increasing public enthusiasm for outdoor recreation, partner with existing agencies to drive conservation and stewardship, and engage with academia to highlight the need for education and workforce development to provide this economy with a talent pipeline.
Maybe most important of all, these offices, address the intersection between spending time outside and improving public health. The galvanization of this movement even created an inspiring set of bi-partisan working principles nestled within the Confluence Accords, a broad spectrum of agreements to work across state lines for the good of all.
A new Interior could galvanize both the Confluence Accords and the place-based insight and energy of a new secretary, to ensure a thoughtful and well-connected national conversation about the future of our wild and heritage spaces, and the economies those spaces create and sustain.
We believe that Secretary Haaland could arrive in office with everything she needs to register in history as the leader who met this challenge. And we, with thousands of our energetic fellow Westerners, stand ready to help.
Patty Limerick is chair of the board for the Center of the American West. Luis Benitez is the former Director for the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. Alison Rose Jefferson is a historian and heritage conservation consultant.
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