Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is redesigning his department to move hundreds of public employees from Washington to out West.
In theory, putting decision-makers in closer touch with the landscapes and people they will affect is a good idea. We are, however, skeptical about intent, because, as with the Bureau of Land Management (Journal, May 18), most of them are already there, and the most frequent challenges land management agencies face are political, philosophical and financial, not geographic.
Zinke has released few details of his proposal, so no one knows how he plans to implement it, but Western leaders, especially governors who Zinke did not consult, are equally skeptical. The concept could make sense with the right people and support, perhaps starting with a different Interior secretary who places a higher value on public comment, but potential problems are apparent.
Proximity to the West’s public lands and water resources means distance from Washington, and that distance likely will mean less visibility there and less access to Congress, its funding appropriations and the president.
Not all of Interior’s constituents (or for that matter, its employees) are comfortable relying on Zinke as their sole voice. Moving the Department of the Interior out of Washington will exacerbate a problem the rural West has always experienced: Washington, ruled by political considerations, doesn’t listen.
The secretary wants to create a new organizational structure of 13 regions based on rivers and ecosystems rather than state lines. That, too, could be a brilliant innovation or a management and communications disaster, especially for Rocky Mountain states that straddle the continental divide. Past attempts at such reorganization have not been managed in a way that created success up and down the hierarchy, and allowing this plan to evolve into a working system is a formidable challenge.
Zinke also does not have a clear understanding of the “redundancies” he has cited. The missions of the BLM, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation are not entirely congruent, and must not be managed as if they were. Nor are they all predominately Western agencies. Efficiencies certainly can be created and enforced, but they must be based on the values those agencies hold in trust for the public, not simply on cutting costs. The American people have much to lose. Public lands face threats from industry, from funding cuts, and most of all, from an administration that neither understands nor values the lands or the staff that have spent their careers managing them.
Zinke has a lot to prove. Proximity will not compensate for an absence of knowledgeable, experienced leaders, a relentless push to cut funding, and a disregard for science – the directions in which the government is moving. Will decision-makers in the West really be empowered to make the right decisions?
Or does Zinke plan to lower the profile of public lands so that they can be dispersed and dismantled? Westerners, and all who care about public resources, must ensure that does not happen.