December 27, 2021

2021 Top Stories #5: Deb Haaland becomes Interior Secretary

Hannah Grover

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland speaking at an event in the Chaco area of New Mexico in 2021.

See our entire countdown of 2021 top stories, to date, here.

A Native American woman took the helm of the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, for the first time ever in March after being nominated for the post by President Joe Biden.

The U.S. Senate confirmed Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo and native New Mexican, as the Secretary of the Interior on March 15 on a 51 to 40 vote.

Related: Haaland confirmed as Interior Secretary

Haaland previously served as a congresswoman representing New Mexico’s First Congressional District. She stepped down from that role upon being confirmed to her new position. That led to a special election in which Melanie Stansbury, who was then a member of New Mexico’s House of Representatives, defeated Republican Mark Moores, Independent Aubrey Dunn and Libertarian Christopher Manning to become New Mexico’s newest congresswoman.

Related: Stansbury wins special election

After being sworn in to lead the department, Haaland quickly took action on climate change and Indigenous rights. 

In April, she issued two secretarial orders. The first established a climate task force and the second revoked secretarial orders that her predecessors had made, many of which were focused on increasing fossil fuel extraction.

Haaland took the reins at the Interior amidst litigation over Biden’s moratorium on oil and gas leasing and permitting. Biden, in January, issued an executive order temporarily pausing new leases and permitting and ordering the Department of the Interior to review those practices.

That review was completed under Haaland’s leadership and, in November, the department released a report that stopped short of outright banning new extraction. The report recommended increasing royalty rates and bonding requirements. This led to backlash from fossil fuel industry groups, who argued that policies should encourage extraction amid rising oil and natural gas prices.

Related: Interior oil and gas review met with mixed reactions

Haaland visited Chaco Culture National Historical Park in November to celebrate the beginning of a long process to implement a 20-year moratorium on new oil and gas leases within a 10-mile buffer zone of the park. Her visit came about a week after the Tribal Nations Summit. During that summit, Biden announced a variety of initiatives, many of which fall under the Department of the Interior’s purview. 

Related: Interior begins process to end new oil and gas leasing near Chaco for 20 years

And, in June, Haaland recommended restoring the size of national monuments that had their boundaries shrink under President Donald Trump’s administration. That includes Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah. The Pueblos consider Bears Ears a sacred place and have ancestral ties to the region. A few months later, in October, Biden followed through with that recommendation, restoring the national monuments to their original sizes, or, in the case of Bears Ears, slightly larger.

Haaland also initiated a comprehensive review of the legacy of boarding schools that Native American children were often forced to attend, sometimes with fatal consequences. The investigation looks into more than 365 sites across the United States, including more than two dozen in New Mexico.