June 28, 2017

Interior Department reorganization will hit New Mexico’s landscapes, communities

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Gage Skidmore

U.S. Congressman Ryan Zinke of Montana speaking at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Flickr cc

The Trump administration reassigned several top-level employees in its reorganization of the U.S. Department of the Interior. That includes Dr. Benjamin Tuggle, regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region, and Weldon “Bruce” Loudermilk, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The New Mexico State Director for the Bureau of Land Management, Amy Lueders, whose background is in economics, is also being reassigned to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

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In a state like New Mexico, with more than 20 American Indian tribes, vast tracts of public lands, federal water projects, myriad endangered species issues, large-scale oil and gas development and existing and proposed mines on public lands, the staffing changes—and what they signal— could have deep and long-lasting effects on the state’s landscapes, communities and future.

During a Senate subcommittee hearing last week, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall questioned Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about the staffing changes, slated to take place at the end of June.

“These senior executives have expertise specific to their current bureaus, and they manage some of the most sensitive issues that affect New Mexico and Indian tribes,” Udall said. “Yet we have no idea why these positions were selected for reassignment, or how moving these individuals out of their current positions improves the management of the department.”

The secretary responded that the “movement was not unprecedented.”

Udall also said he was disturbed to learn of the staffing changes through news reports instead of from the department directly.

“Amy [Lueders] has served as our BLM state director for the past two years, and she has been incredibly engaged and responsive,” Udall said. “Quite frankly, I don’t want New Mexico to lose her, and I’m very concerned about the impacts of other changes as well.”

During the hearing, Udall also requested a list of all personnel changes and information about why those employees are being moved. As of Tuesday evening, Udall’s office had yet to receive a response from Zinke.

Udall and Zinke may disagree as to whether the reassignments are unprecedented on a federal level, but Gov. Susana Martinez implemented similar changes within New Mexico’s environmental regulatory agency after she was elected in 2010. At the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED), for example, her political appointees moved non-political staff members into new positions outside their areas of training and expertise.

At NMED, the head of water and wastewater was moved to petroleum storage tank oversight and the air quality expert was moved into occupational health and safety. And in a move that seems even more ill-conceived today, the employee who oversaw management of the Waste Isolation Power Plant for nearly two decades was transferred to regulate food safety instead.

Interior changes widespread

The Interior Department has already seen big changes from Zinke.

Earlier this year, Trump directed Zinke to review national monuments that previous presidents had designated under the Antiquities Act of 1906. That includes New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte National Monument near Taos and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in the southern part of the state.

Related story: Land Commissioner asks for expedited review of NM’s monuments

In May, the secretary also sent a memo postponing meetings of all of the agency’s more than 200 boards, committees, subcommittees and external and internal advisory bodies. The department, he wrote, will be reviewing the charter and charge for each of those committees, and he postponed all their meetings until September 2017 or later. This includes the Middle Rio Grande Endangered Species Act Collaborative Program, a group of federal, state, tribal and local governments that have been meeting since 2001 to address issues related to the endangered Rio Grande Silvery Minnow and the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.

This week, Zinke also praised Trump’s plans to nominate Brenda Burman as commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, a position held at the end of the Obama administration by New Mexico’s Estevan López.

The Bureau of Reclamation delivers waters to farmers and cities across the western United States. Here in New Mexico, the agency oversees reservoirs like Elephant Butte and El Vado, as well as the San Juan Chama Project, which delivers water from the San Juan River to the Rio Grande. In the southwestern United States, the agency has also worked extensively on planning for future water scarcity. Recently, for example, the agency studied how the Upper Rio Grande Basin is likely to be affected by climate change.

Burman worked for the Interior Department during the George W. Bush administration as counselor to the Assistant Secretary of Water and Science and was then promoted to head the agency’s external and intergovernmental affairs in 2006.

More recently, she worked for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Burman currently works as director of water policy for Arizona’s Salt River Project, which provides electricity to Phoenix and southern Arizona and also delivers 800,000 acre feet of water to customers each year.

BLM’s cuts and baskets

Within the Interior Department, one agency slated for targeted changes is the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees 13 million acres in New Mexico.

Related story: As the feds yank methane regulations, NM’s methane hotspot isn’t going away

In an email to BLM employees, Acting Director Michael Nedd wrote that the president’s proposed 13 percent budget cut for the agency will present challenges for employees.

BLM

BLM Acting Director Mike Nedd

“While the FY 2018 budget is not final, we must heed the staffing levels that it calls for,” he wrote, adding that could mean 1,000 fewer full-time BLM employees nationwide.

If that workforce reduction can’t be achieved through “normal attrition,” he wrote, the department might start offering early retirement and buyouts later this year.

Attached to Nedd’s email was a Q&A on the agency’s leadership priorities. Under Trump, the agency’s top goal will be “Making America Safe Through Energy Independence.” Other goals include: Making America Great Through Shared Conservation Stewardship, Making America Safe – Restoring Our Sovereignty, Getting America Back to Work and Serving the American Family.

Restoring sovereignty, according to the document, would come from “effective management of the borderlands” in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Defense. (Border security and surveillance falls under the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Protection, and not under the Department of Defense.)

According to the document, the BLM’s priorities will fall within three categories or “buckets.”

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The first involves the administration’s priorities, while the second includes work that must be done by law or regulation. “Leadership will review and prioritize the work in this second bucket and allocate resources accordingly,” the document reads. “The third bucket includes any remaining low-priority work that leadership will review and assess, using any remaining funds available.”

The BLM’s workforce has declined by one-fifth since 2010, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which notes that despite being the smallest federal land agency, BLM has the largest jurisdiction, overseeing a total of 245 million acres of land and 700 million acres of mineral rights nationwide.

In December, PEER surveyed BLM employees, who responded that they were already understaffed and unable to handle their current workloads.

“The idea they would take another cut of 1,000 jobs,” PEER’s executive director, Jeff Ruch, said. “The agency is shrinking even though its responsibilities haven’t decreased, if anything it’s gotten greater.”

Ruch also said that Nedd’s Q&A document is asking employees to undertake new responsibilities that are beyond the agency’s mandate.

“Like energy independence, which so far as I know isn’t in their job description, and border security and job creation. Those were described as first basket goodies, and the second basket were the things they’re required to do by law,” he said. “The third basket, the lowest, is everything else, like visitor safety, preventing desecration of public lands, preventing grazing trespass, cleaning up orphaned oil and gas operations—those are now in the rumble seat.”

Ruch also said that despite Zinke’s reassurance that the movement of employees is not unprecedented, the volume of reassignments is unusual.

But to Interior Department employees who are worried about their jobs and programs, Ruch suggests taking a deep breath.

“At the moment, none of these plans are close to fruition,” he said. Congress largely ignored Trump’s earlier budget cuts and suggested investments, including the proposed border wall.

That said, there are some notable things about the BLM’s document, said Ruch.

“It came out on the same day Zinke was saying that DOI is going to shed 4,000 people. This suggest that one quarter of them will come from the BLM, which is one of the thinnest agencies already in terms of staff,” he said. “But, at three pages, [Nedd’s document] is more than we’ve seen from the other agencies.”

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