August 18, 2020

Udall: Interior Department should be ‘center’ of U.S. climate change response

Sen. Tom Udall

U.S. Sen.Tom Udall said the U.S. Department of the Interior could play a pivotal role in the country’s response to climate change during an August 15 webinar hosted by conservation advocacy group WildEarth Guardians.

“The Interior Department should be right at the center of climate, endangered ecosystems, taking better care of the land, coming up with a good land ethic and dealing with the diversity issues and the environmental justice issues,” Udall told WildEarth Guardians executive director John Horning. “The next president is going to want to do something about climate, the Interior Department is going to be at the center of that.”

Udall’s father, Stewart Udall, served as Secretary of the Interior under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Udall referenced his father’s work at the Interior, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, protecting species before the Endangered Species Act became law, and supporting diversity amid the Interior Department’s ranks. 

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He lamented the recent exodus of career employees at the department under the Trump administration, which he referred to as “a hollowing out” of the department. 

“This is the saddest part. One of the things that my father used to talk about was what a treasure the Interior Department career employees are. That’s true in many of our federal agencies, where you have career people who serve their entire life in public service, in a specialty,” Udall said. 

He pointed to Robert Stanton, the former and first black director of the National Parks Service, who began his career at the Department of the Interior as a season park ranger.

“We need to do a major recruitment effort to build the middle ranks and we need to do a recruitment effort to have the employees of the Interior Department be as diverse as the nation,” Udall said. “The Interior Department should look like a cross-section of the nation.”

Udall said the career employees have been “demoralized” and “demeaned” under Trump’s leadership, and criticized decisions made by U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acting director William Perry Pendley. 

“What they’re doing with the Bureau of Land Management — cutting the head off and sending it out to Colorado — is just a disaster,” Udall said, referring to the department’s decision to relocate the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to Colorado. “There are organizational things they’ve done that has demoralized the people.”

Pendley has proved to be a controversial figure to helm the BLM. Prior to his appointment, Pendley penned a number of books, some arguing against government stewardship of public lands. The White House recently nominated Pendley to officially serve as director of the BLM, but over the weekend media outlets reported rumors that the nomination would be pulled.

Udall joined U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and the rest of the Senate Democratic Caucus in opposing the nomination. 

“It’s hard to imagine a worse pick for BLM than someone who doesn’t believe in the very idea of conservation, who has a clear history of racism toward Native Americans, and who spearheaded a relocation effort that is a transparent effort to undermine the very agency he would oversee,” Udall said in a statement released shortly after the webinar. “Pendley never should have been nominated, and the fact that he was shows you what you need to know about this administration’s conservation priorities. He should not be allowed to continue in this role in an acting, unconfirmed capacity. It’s time for DOI to stand up for our public lands and our trust and treaty obligations to Tribes.”

Udall broadly criticized public lands management under the Trump administration during the webinar, which Udall believes has been skewed towards energy development. He said environmental agencies need to return to their respective missions. 

“We need to see a good balance with what’s happening on public lands. We are very much tilted on an awful lot of our public lands only to energy, to oil and gas, to coal,” Udall said. “Those lands are much more valuable in terms of recreation and playing a role in climate change.”

And he agreed with Horning that a moratorium on energy development may be a good idea if and when the next administration looks to calibrate public lands management with an eye toward climate change. 

“That’s something that the next president and the next Interior secretary should take a really hard look at,” he said. “That gives you an opportunity to step back and take a look at the big picture and really figure out where it is you want to go.”