Zinke’s Interior reorganization plan labeled downsizing in disguise

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s departmental reorganization proposal would have widespread impacts on his agency’s 70,000 employees. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Politicians and conservationists quickly christened Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s unprecedented departmental reorganization plan as subterfuge Thursday, contending it is actually downsizing in disguise.

If approved by Congress, it would be the largest reorganization in the Interior Department’s 168 years.

“On its face, this looks more like a dismantling than a reorganization,” said New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich, whose state – like Montana – would be split in two by Zinke’s proposal, with Interior employees divided between two regions.

The proposal also appears to eliminate the Navajo Regional Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said Heinrich, a Democrat. “A change of this magnitude should only come after extensive, meaningful government-to-government consultation with the affected tribes.”

A spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., released a statement with similar questions about the proposal.

“As this process moves along, Senator 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,” said Jennifer Talhelm.

Zinke’s predecessor as Interior secretary, Sally Jewell, also wondered about the move and its intentions – and predicted the changes will be difficult to move through Congress, which would have to approve such a widespread movement of federal employees.

“I’m skeptical about the reorganization and its ability to serve the public more effectively,” Jewell told the Chicago Tribune. “Interior has a broad and diverse mission.”

In an email to reporters, she added: “This would be from moving people, giving up leases before maturity, potential severance costs, and substantial disruption to productivity.”

The proposal would divide the United States into 13 regions and centralize authority within those regions.

Zinke told his 70,000 employees in a webcast Thursday that the new regions would be defined by watersheds and geographic basins, rather than by states or any existing departmental boundaries.

The Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation would have new headquarters, and a number of existing offices in Washington, D.C., Denver and Albuquerque would be split up and moved to smaller cities, along with their employees.

Among the most heated reactions came in an opinion piece by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.

“The National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies manage our federal lands for balanced use and public enjoyment, but they follow different laws and mandates,” he wrote. “There’s a reason you can drill for oil on BLM land but not in a national park. To order agencies with different priorities to work together on some vaguely defined ‘operational’ basis is a recipe for confusion and inevitable staff attrition, though this might suit the Trump administration just fine.”

The congressman questioned what he believes is Zinke’s intention to reorganize the Interior Department on a military model. Zinke is a former Navy SEAL.

“Zinke insists on seeing our nation’s conservation and wildlife management agencies as military branches, which sometimes combine forces on particular missions, and himself as a general leading the fight,” Grijalva wrote. “The fundamental difference in structures, purposes and operating cultures between Interior, which manages our national parks and natural resources, and the Pentagon, which fights terrorism and conducts military operations overseas, is lost on him.”

Matthew Koehler, executive director of the WildWest Institute, encouraged Montana Sen. Jon Tester to voice his opposition to the proposal and its impacts on Montana and other Western states.

Eastern and central Montana would be placed in North Central Region 5, along with Wyoming, the Dakotas, Nebraska and parts of Kansas and Colorado.

Meanwhile, western Montana would be in Region 8, along with Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

None of Montana’s congressmen have yet to respond to Zinke’s plan. Prior to his appointment as Interior secretary, Zinke was the Republican U.S. House representative from Montana.

Interior employees already were reeling from changes implemented during the Trump administration’s first year, some departmental advocates contended Thursday.

“Secretary Zinke has proposed dramatic cuts to the Interior Department budgets, demoralized career employees, and purged senior career officials from their areas of expertise,” said an email from the Center for American Progress. “The organizational changes he is proposing must be assessed in the context of the Trump administration’s broader efforts to diminish the authority of the Interior Department and weaken its agencies’ ability to conduct independent oversight of the industries it regulates.”

Watch for updates to this story as additional reaction is collected.