Four Ways to Restore the Public’s Faith in Interior

The Secretary of the Interior is a singular leader within our government—responsible for safeguarding our iconic public lands, honoring our tribal commitments, protecting our wildlife heritage, and stewarding our shared natural resources. Following two years of decisions to reduce the size of American public lands and roll back protections for threatened species, former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke stepped down in December amid allegations of ethics violations. Now that President Trump has nominated David Bernhardt to fill the position, is clear is that the American people want a course correction at the Department of the Interior.

Here are four ways for the new Secretary of the Interior to restore the public’s faith in Interior:

First, the next secretary must restore conservation, recreation, and cultural heritage back to the core work of the Department of the Interior.  Balancing those cherished ideals — along with wise resource use — is required by law and central to the department’s mission. Unfortunately, under former Interior Secretary Zinke, the values of conservation, recreation and cultural heritage were cast aside in favor of an unbridled pursuit of “energy dominance.”

Polar Bears in Alaska. Photo: Michael Henry

Second, Zinke’s successor must use science-based evidence to drive his decision making. The rollback of sage-grouse protections in the West and polar bear and caribou protections in Alaska — and the idea of opening their ranges to additional disruptive energy developmentflew in the face of all scientific research and poses very real risks to the survival of these iconic animals and their habitats.

Third, the next secretary must listen to the voices of the public, the people who own and cherish our nation’s public lands.  Last year, the Bureau of Land Management “lost” 100,000 comments made by citizens, including National Wildlife Federation members, who were concerned about sage grouse protections. The Department also ignored the voices of a bipartisan group of governors, ranchers, conservationists and sportsmen who had carefully crafted an historic agreement to protect the sage grouse.

The greater sage-grouse/Photo: BLM

It has virtually cut the public out of oil and gas leasing decisions, slashing public comment periods to a mere 10 days. The voices of Native Americans have also been consistently silenced by this administration, most notably in the significant, unprecedented reduction of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. A recent poll by Colorado College showed that two-thirds of Westerners prioritize protections for water, air and wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation over “maximizing” oil and gas extraction from public lands.  These are the voices that should take priority with the next secretary, not special interests.

Fourth, the Secretary must commit to keeping public lands in public hands. Americans share ownership of approximately 600 million acres of land and water in the United States, including our beloved national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and monuments.  The next secretary must ensure there is never an attempt to sell or transfer these sacred lands. The habitat and wildlife that these lands support provide priceless opportunities for families, hikers, backcountry skiers, wildlife watchers, hunters, and anglers to reconnect with nature. These lands belong to all of us.

Great Smokey Mountain National Park. Photo: Steve Perry