Thomas Jefferson had it right: “The government closest to the people serves the people best.”
The Bureau of Land Management manages 248 million acres, two and a half times the total size of California, of which 99 percent is west of the Mississippi River. And yet, the BLM is headquartered in Washington. The Fish and Wildlife Service manages 89 million acres, an area slightly bigger than Germany. All its responsibilities, too, lie far from Washington. And, although the Bureau of Reclamation’s motto is “Managing water in the West,” the agency is paradoxically headquartered in Washington.
As the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, I have a responsibility to conduct oversight of Department of the Interior and its nine constituent bureaus that are responsible for protecting our national parks and natural resources, managing federal lands, producing impactful research and carrying out various activities to fulfill the federal government’s trust responsibility to Native American tribes.
The unfortunate truth is that federal decision-makers are not located near the people, lands and economies that are affected by their decisions. This is particularly frustrating to me, my constituents and many Westerners who believe they are not being heard in decisions that directly impact their communities.
I echo Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s statement: “There’s a lot of anger out there in Utah on federal land policies emanating from Washington, D.C. Public lands belong to the public; they don’t belong to Washington, D.C.” Under our current system, decision-makers lack regular interactions with the actual people who are affected by their decisions.
For this reason — and many others I have detailed in previous columns on this issue — I support empowering regional and state-level Interior officials, in cooperation with local stakeholders, to manage the federal lands in their areas without interference from Washington.
Moreover, despite sharing many overlapping areas of responsibility, each Interior bureau has its own offices, regions, IT systems and management practices. This unnecessary duplication of bureaucracy is why I also support the administration’s plans to standardize management regions across bureaus and consolidate bureau functions.
Top-down Soviet-style centralized bureaucracies are known to fail. Interior headquarters has not seen a substantial reorganization in decades and is not positioned efficiently to meet the demands of innovation and change in the 21st century. While Zinke’s final proposals are a work in progress, I applaud his willingness to take on defenders of the entrenched status quo for the greater good.
In an era of high citizen distrust of government, putting federal decision-makers closer to constituents paves the way for improved two-way communication. It puts decision-makers into communities where these issues matter immensely and increases their interaction with residents and the field-level employees who will implement those decisions. I sincerely believe these reforms will help change the dialogue from “the problem” to “our problem.”
I agree with Zinke’s stance that the Interior would benefit from a significant shake-up that includes reallocating bureaus’ decision-making authority to the respective areas of impact and streamlining cross-bureau coordination by consolidating mission support functions. These reforms will facilitate senior Interior employees familiarizing themselves with the lands they are managing and the people who are affected by their decisions.
Transforming a distant bureaucracy to ensure people have a voice in decisions that impact their livelihoods is our only path to accountable, effective and transparent government. At the Department of the Interior, let’s create a government closest to the people that serves them better.