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The Interior Department’s Reorganization and Its Likely Impact

Updated: Aug 1, 2020

As reported this week in The Washington Post, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has launched an ambitious effort to reorganize his department. Secretary Zinke’s effort could eventually shift hundreds of workers to new locations and change the way the federal government manages nearly 650 million acres of land and water across the country.

This proposed reorganization is a gradual process, which could help avoid wholesale personnel displacements. But if successful, the plan’s impact is likely to result in significant changes in the way state and local governments, tribes, and private landowners deal with the government. Having worked with Interior officials for more than 30 years, both inside and outside of government, I am assuring clients of two things:

  1. The proposed changes would streamline the decision process by creating “one-stop shops,” for more efficient interagency coordination.

  2. The proposed new regional approach would significantly change the culture of these agencies.

Under the current system, which evolved over many decades, Interior bureaus have different regional boundaries. BLM has state and district offices, whereas the Bureau of Reclamation has much larger geographic regions based on interstate water compacts. Both the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service combine states into large regions like the Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest – but their regions do not match. These structures no doubt made sense at one time, but in the modern era, few projects and issues are limited to a single agency.

Today’s complex projects frequently involve multiple jurisdictions, so coordination is important. At Dawson, we often work on projects that concurrently involve the Corps of Engineers, BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, FERC, and EPA. All of this requires lots of separate meetings!

The new plan would reorganize Interior agencies, eliminating most state offices in favor of matching regional boundaries, defined by natural watershed basins: North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Great Lakes, Mississippi, North Central, South Central, Colorado River, Northern Rockies, Great Basin, North and South Pacific.

Some of these ideas have been around for years, though this is the first time a Secretary has proposed such sweeping changes. The plan is controversial, partly because governments always resist change. Several states have complained about being split, though many are already divided differently among different bureaus. Some employees are concerned about moving, though reassignments could be phased in over time.

But if such issues can be resolved, better coordination between agencies could make project approvals much more efficient, perhaps even faster and cheaper. That might also help avoid agencies blind-siding each other with different interpretations. Dawson will continue monitoring this process to best advise our clients.

Greg Walcher Senior Advisor

A member of the Dawson team since 2006, Greg is the author of Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back. He is a Western Slope native.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dawson & Associates.


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