By Lindsay Davis, GSA Science Policy Fellow

Since Ryan Zinke’s confirmation on March 1, 2017 as U.S. Secretary of the Interior, he has been touting his plans to reorganize the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) to move more employees into the field, or, as he says, put more “boots on the ground.” A press release issued by the DOI on April 12, 2017 contained quotes by Secretary Zinke on his vision for reorganization of the DOI:

“I fully support President Trump and taxpayers’ vision to reorganize the federal government in a way that will make the executive branch more lean, accountable, and efficient while still allowing the government to deliver core services. I approach this job like I approached every command I was tasked with in the Navy: empower the front lines, cut the waste, fraud and abuse, hold people accountable, and do more with less. I won’t be afraid to make investments where appropriate and I look forward to working with the career veterans as we approach this mission together.”

A preliminary outline of the plan surfaced in July of 2017 and indicated that Interior would be divided into 13 regions to be managed by Joint Management Areas (JMAs) based on watersheds and wildlife corridors. The plan also proposed moving the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation from Washington D.C. to Denver. Zinke suggested decreasing the workforce by 4,000 full-time staff members, which he claims could be primarily achieved through voluntary separation and replacing retiring GS-14 employees with early-career employees in the field.

Regions proposed by Secretary Zinke as part of the reorganization of the Interior Department. Credit: USGS/DOI

When a proposal was released by Zinke in January of 2018, the Western Governors’ Association released a letter articulating their disappointment at not being consulted. In addition, the letter expressed concern that many Western states would be divided and managed under the jurisdiction of as many as three different JMAs.

Additional concerns have been raised by Members of Congress Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), Ranking Member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and Donald McEachin (D-VA), Ranking Member of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, who co-authored a letter to Zinke in February asking him to stop the process of reorganization until the plan can be vetted and approved by Congress.

Secretary Zinke included a half-page highlight and a few details on the Department-Wide Reorganization Plan on pages DH-19 and DH-20 of the Fiscal Year 2019 The Interior Budget in Brief released in February 2018. According to the document, $17.5 million of the 2019 DOI requested budget would go towards moving some BLM, FWS, and Reclamation staff to the west and to reestablishing boundary lines, which have already been adjusted several times. These changes would result in a “culture shift” within the agency. The justification for the reorganization reads as follows:

“The Department of the Interior intends to establish common regional boundaries for Interior’s bureaus in 2018 and to further develop this approach in 2019. The goal is to improve overall operations, internal communication, customer service, and stakeholder engagement. Aligning geographic areas across Interior will enhance coordination of resource decisions and policies and will simplify how citizens engage with the Department.”

In a Fiscal Year 2019 budget hearing held on April 11 by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, Secretary Zinke provided a general outline for how the reorganization plan was developed and a summary of overall goals. He explained that after identifying a lack of coordination on resource management issues as a problem, he asked the USGS to define the boundaries of the 13 regions based on science, adding corridors, holdings, and ecosystems to the previously mentioned criteria of watersheds and wildlife. He then had Senior Executive Service (SES) members review and make recommendations on the suggested boundaries. Zinke claimed that, while he disagreed with some of the feedback, he incorporated every recommendation made by SES officials into the plan. Next, he explained, he brought in the governors, who were particularly concerned that their relationships with the State Directors for BLM be preserved. He also stated he has spoken with conservation groups, Congressional Members, and “all stakeholders” on the matter. Zinke highlighted that the unification of boundaries managed by agencies such Fish and Wildlife, the National Parks Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation would allow for improvements in three focus areas: recreation, NEPA, and permitting.

Subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert (R-CA-42) and Ranking Member Betty McCollum (D-MN-04) voiced some specific concerns during the hearing. Rep. Calvert has been hearing from tribal nations that they are being left out of the process. Secretary Zinke said he plans to hold consultations with tribes to determine whether they would like to adopt the new model, and while he believes it would be to their benefit, he concedes that since they are sovereign it is ultimately their decision. Rep. McCollum expressed broad concerns about the plan lacking an overall foundational analysis and possible discrimination during the reassignment process, as well as specific concerns about how the plan proposes to break up the Great Lakes region. Chairman Calvert ended the hearing by agreeing with Ranking Member McCollum that the conversation should continue in a non-hearing setting. Secretary Zinke agreed, and had already made it clear during the hearing that his next step would be speaking with Congress.

In the report accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, which was enacted on March 23 of this year, appropriators provided a joint explanatory statement to Interior that clarified their expectations of consultation related to any potential reorganization of the DOI:

“It is noted that such reprogramming guidelines apply to proposed reorganizations, workforce restructure, reshaping or transfer of function presented in the budget justifications, or bureau-wide downsizing, especially those of significant national or regional importance, and include closures, consolidations, and relocations of offices, facilities, and laboratories presented in the budget justifications. In addition, no agency shall implement any part of a reorganization that modifies regional or State boundaries for agencies or bureaus that were in effect as of the date of enactment of this Act unless approved consistent with the General Guidelines for Reprogramming procedures specified herein. Any such reprogramming request submitted to the Committees on Appropriations shall include a description of anticipated benefits, including anticipated efficiencies and cost-savings, as well as a description of anticipated personnel impact and funding changes anticipated to implement the proposal.”

Although Secretary Zinke would like to continue making progress on the reorganization efforts this year, he is now charged with convincing Congress that there are significant benefits before taking any major steps forward.