Ryan Zinke’s tenure as interior secretary may be over, but his major initiatives shouldn’t have to end — especially his ambitious effort to overhaul the massive bureaucracy he once led.
As secretary, one of Zinke’s signature efforts was to reorganize the Interior Department, which comprises 70,000 employees spread across eight bureaus and 46 regions, primarily in the West. The reorganization would streamline operations, cut red tape and shift more decision-making authority out of Washington and closer to western regions.
But with Zinke’s departure, the future of the reorganization plan, which would align the department’s bureaus into “unified regions” along state boundaries and watersheds, is now uncertain. President Donald Trump should ensure that the next interior secretary continues Zinke’s important effort to transform and modernize the department.
The Interior Department is by far the nation’s largest landowner. All together, the department manages 500 million acres — more than one-fifth of the entire United States — with the vast majority of its landholdings in Western states. This has led some to refer to interior as the “Department of the West.”
With such a large federal footprint, many Western land use issues — from livestock grazing and energy development to timber harvesting and recreation — are matters of national policy, not of state or local jurisdiction. Yet they occur thousands of miles from interior’s headquarters in Washington. Zinke’s plan would streamline the bureaucracy and allow more local decision-making.
That change is long overdue. After working 18 years in the Interior Department, the late economist Robert H. Nelson noted that in practice the department often acts as “a planning and zoning board” for large areas of the rural West, a function typically reserved for local and state governments. And the department’s track record is less than stellar.
Despite controlling vast amounts of natural resources and national treasures, federal land management is costly and inefficient. Most federal agencies often lose taxpayer money managing valuable natural resources on public lands. These high costs stem from interior’s large bureaucracies that are hampered by red tape, creating what former federal land managers have referred to as “analysis paralysis” created by a “Gordian knot” of laws and regulations.
Across the West, the Interior Department oversees a wide variety of issues, such as determining the number of livestock to be grazed, which roads and trails should allow which types of uses and where development or preservation should take place. Yet, in part due to the department’s centralized structure, these questions are far more likely to produce acrimony and lawsuits from national interest groups than they are to result in cooperation or negotiation among local stakeholders. Decisions are too often made by faraway bureaucrats rather than by local managers or are settled in court instead of being resolved cooperatively.
But making government more efficient doesn’t appeal to everyone. As my former Property and Environment Research Center colleague Richard Stroup put it after working several years in the Interior Department, “efficiency has no constituency in Washington, D.C.” And, in fact, many environmental groups prefer an inefficient and centralized department, especially if it helps stop or hinder the management or use of public lands.6 comments on this story
Nonetheless, interior reorganization has attracted bipartisan support, including from Ken Salazar, President Barack Obama’s former interior chief. Salazar has said reorganization “makes a lot of sense,” including the possibility of moving some agencies’ headquarters to the West. “I think it’s always good for government to look at how it can do its job better,” he told E&E News last year.
Zinke was right to seek to restructure the Interior Department to ensure that it better serves the people and communities that are most affected by its policies and to make it more effective at carrying out its core missions. The next interior secretary should continue those efforts.