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Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Ryan Zinke said a massive reorganization is being considered for the agency, which may include managing federal lands by watersheds rather than political borders, and through relocating employees to field offices across the country.
Zinke discussed the plans in a five-minute video that was shared with Interior’s 70,000 employees before it was made public on Wednesday. Although Zinke was short on specifics in the video, he reportedly told the Washington Post in a follow-up interview that he proposed dividing Interior’s jurisdiction into 13 regions.
Zinke claimed he took “inspiration” for the revamp from John Wesley Powell, a geologist, American West explorer and second director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) from 1881-1894.
"Taking inspiration from Powell's concept of watersheds, we're looking at reshaping our current bureau-based regional system of management and moving to a system based on ecosystems, watersheds and science, rather than the current state or regional boundaries," Zinke said. "This concept will allow DOI and our participating agencies to address concerns using a system-level approach to better manage important resources, such as watersheds, trail systems, infrastructure requirements, recreational access and wildlife corridors."
Last June, Zinke told two Senate panels that Interior was "moving prudently" to fill positions in field offices while limiting hires in Washington, DC. But in this week's video, Zinke conceded that is was "likely" that DOI's administrative functions in the nation's capital "will see little if any change at all."
Nevertheless, changes are coming, he said.
"This change will require the bureaus within the DOI to work more closely together on key management decisions and have a formalized structure for multi-department, state, tribal coordination and consultation," Zinke said. "To make it work, it also will require giving more flexibility, resources and decision-making authority to the frontline superintendents and managers so the right action can be quickly made, without excessive paperwork and burdensome administrative requirements.
"It will require our scientists to reside in the field doing research and not in the office writing grant proposals asking permission to do research. Our focus will be better field management by delivering the front line the assets they need to make better decisions."
A major reorganization would require congressional approval, a fact that was not lost on Zinke's predecessor, President Obama’s former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
"I'm skeptical about the reorganization and its ability to serve the public more effectively," Jewell told the Washington Post. "DOI has a broad and diverse mission...This would be from moving people, giving up leases before maturity, potential severance costs, and substantial disruption to productivity.
"Just trying to look at a map and saying we're going to take DOI and organize it this way may be inconsistent with the mission of Interior."
Although neither Zinke nor Interior has released an official map showing where the 13 regions would be, spokesman Jennifer Talhelm for Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) said Zinke had proposed dividing New Mexico into two regions, according to reports.
"As this process moves along, Sen. Udall will listen to his constituents and pose a long list of questions -- including why Secretary Zinke proposes to split New Mexico into two regions, and what impacts this proposal will have on tribes, on the department's partners and stakeholders, and on the agency's workforce in the state," Talhelm said.
Agencies within the DOI that affect oil and gas development include the USGS, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.