Moffat County concerned by proposed re-districting of the Department of Interior
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is pressing ahead with a massive overhaul of his department, despite growing opposition to his proposal to move hundreds of public employees out of Washington and create a new organizational map that largely ignores state boundaries.
Zinke wants to divide most of the department’s 70,000 employees and their responsibilities into 13 regions based on rivers and ecosystems, instead of continuing to follow the current map, based mostly on state lines.
The proposal would relocate many of the Interior Department’s top decision-makers from Washington to still-undisclosed cities in the West. The headquarters of some of its major bureaus also would move west.
A movement has emerged in support of moving the federal headquarters of some Department of Interior agencies to Grand Junction. Last week, the Moffat County Board of County Commissioners signed a resolution in support of moving the federal headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management and other Interior agencies to Grand Junction.
However, Moffat County is concerned by the proposal to reorganize the regions.
The concept — supported in principle by many Western politicians from both parties — is to get top officials closer to the natural resources and cultural sites they manage. The Interior Department oversees a vast expanse of public lands, mainly in the West, that are rich in wildlife, parks, archaeological and historic sites, oil and gas, coal and grazing ranges.
It also oversees huge dams and reservoirs that are vital to some of the West’s largest cities and most productive agricultural land.
In a draft map of the proposed regions, Colorado would be split into three regions.
Moffat County and much of the Western Slope are in the same region as southwest Wyoming, eastern and southern Utah, western New Mexico and all of Arizona. Speaking at the Colorado First Conservation District Annual Banquet earlier this week, Moffat County Natural Resources director Jeff Comstock said that, if this map was implemented, it would be logical to place the regional headquarters in Phoenix or Santa Fe.
“We’re really concerned about that, for the ability to actually manage resources,” Comstock said. Ecologically, he added “the differences between the southern states and us are significant enough, let alone the politics of governors.”
Comstock and organizations such as the Western Governor’s Association are troubled by what they see as a lack of input from local leadership on the proposed re-districting.
“There’s been no consultation with the states or with local commissioners, which is very intriguing, because the Trump administration has developed a reputation of actually working with local people,” Comstock said. “On this one issue, they haven’t been. It just got tossed out there.”
U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, of Arizona, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources, suspects the plan is an attempt to undercut the department by pressuring senior employees to quit rather than relocating, leaving positions unfilled and creating confusion about who regulates what.
“I think it’s a very thinly disguised attempt to gut the Department of Interior and its bureaus,” he said.
Grijalva also questioned the value of moving more department employees West, saying more than 90 percent are already in field offices outside Washington.
Grijalva and Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin, of Virginia, also a member of the Natural Resources Committee, on Wednesday accused Zinke of withholding key information from lawmakers and trying to implement the plan piecemeal, while avoiding full scrutiny from Congress.
Congress has the final say over the proposal. The Republican-dominated Western Governors Association expressed concern that organizing the department around natural features instead of state lines would weaken their states’ influence on department decisions.
Zinke’s spokeswoman, Heather Swift, said Wednesday that moving more Interior Department employees to the West has received overwhelming backing from Congress and state governments and that managing by ecosystems, instead of state borders, has “a lot of support.”
Six Republican members of the House Natural Resources Committee told Zinke in January they support the reorganization. They said it would improve agency efficiency and responsiveness.
The Interior Department has been unusually tight-lipped about the plan and has not said how many of its Washington-based employees would be moved, where in the West they would land, when they would go or how much the overhaul would cost.
Swift said the department has briefed both Republican and Democratic congressional staffers and state officials on the proposal. She also said the department does not have a final plan.
Budget documents released Monday show the department is already taking steps to implement the new regions.
The department requested $17.5 million in 2019 to get the plan started and to move an undisclosed number of employees from their Washington headquarters to the West.
The budget documents included only a broad outline of the proposal and did not address in detail how it would affect the department’s basic responsibility — managing natural resources.
In an email to the AP on Wednesday, Swift said boundaries based on rivers and ecosystems would allow resource managers to do a better job and coordinate more closely, because nature doesn’t follow political boundaries. She used a deer herd as an example.
“In just one season, alone, the herd might pass through a national park, state land, a wildlife refuge and private land — and along its migration, it could wander through two or three different states,” she said.
Lynne Scarlett, deputy secretary of interior under former-President George W. Bush, said the reorganization could cut both ways.
Focusing on large, regional ecosystems could help the department pay more attention to the connections among land, water, wildlife and people, said Scarlett, now a policy executive for The Nature Conservancy. But the department’s bureaus have different and very specialized responsibilities, and it’s important to preserve their individual missions, she said.
“There’s no perfect management solution. Every solution that one thinks about involves trade-offs,” she said.
With an above-average snowpack following a snowy winter, local firefighters and wildlife experts are expecting a mild fire season this year, especially at higher elevations.