In multiple appearances on Capitol Hill this week, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke stood behind his proposal to cut at least 4,000 full-time staff from the Interior Department. He has also begun an unprecedented shake-up of senior career officials. Together, the thinning of experienced career employees could have far-reaching consequences for the agency’s ability to manage public land and energy development on behalf of the American people.
“I’m troubled by a number of recent personnel decisions that call into question the department’s commitment to its workforce and of keeping Congress informed of major changes to the day-to-day operations of the department,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) told Zinke on Wednesday.
The Trump administration’s proposed budget would cut the Interior Department by nearly 12 percent, forcing significant layoffs. While the reductions would impact the entire agency, those staff cuts are particularly concerning for two bureaus: the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
During his first week on the job, Zinke promised to “focus on rebuilding our parks,” but the administration’s proposed budget still cuts the park service by almost $300 million. The park service’s own budget justification says that they would be forced to cut 1,242 full-time equivalent employees, a number that, in practice, could end up being much higher because many park rangers and other employees are seasonal or part-time. This would likely result in closed campgrounds and other facilities at a time when national park visitation is at an all-time high and is an economic boon to local communities.
The cuts at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are also severe. Department officials already told the BLM in a memo to prepare to cut 1,000 people before the end of the year — a 10 percent cut of the agency’s staff. According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a group representing state, local, and federal resource professionals, BLM is already severely understaffed.
“According to Trump’s fantasy plan, BLM is supposed to achieve ‘energy independence’ before its coffee break, stimulate rural ‘job creation’ by lunch and do it with substantially less resources,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that BLM failed to identify any functions the bureau is supposed to set aside. “It is disturbing but perhaps not surprising that BLM staff are directed to put political hobbyhorses ahead of legally required duties.”
BLM has a host of responsibilities that stand to be impacted by significant cuts — including managing safety and inspection of oil and gas production, firefighting, mineral rights on Indian lands, abandoned mines, and protecting cultural and historic sites.
BLM’s law enforcement rangers are also already stretched thin. Right now, only 124 rangers are responsible for patrolling 245 million acres of public lands — essentially one officer for every 2 million acres. These rangers combat drug cultivation, protect Native American sites and artifacts from being looted, prevent thousands of incidents of theft and vandalism, and confront anti-government threats like those posed by the Bundys, who staged an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
It’s not just cuts that have people worried about Interior’s ability to handle its responsibilities. Zinke recently sent nearly 50 senior career officials letters informing them of new assignments. Though Zinke can legally reassign these positions, Dan Ashe, Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Obama administration, says the scale of the shake-up is unprecedented and could result in several issue experts being moved outside of their expertise. For example, the agency’s top climate policy official has been reassigned to an office with the mission to collect revenues from energy development on public lands.
“I’m very worried about the idea that you’re moving people who have real serious expertise in an area to an area that they may not know anything about,” Udall, the top Democrat overseeing Interior spending, said in an interview with Politico. “It looks like an attempt to make the agency so it doesn’t work very well or [so] that the powers that be exercise their will more easily on the agency.”
Some are calling the moves an attempt to “intimidate” career employees and send a message that political leadership is calling the shots. Zinke told reporters after the hearing that the senior officials “can either take the move or resign.”
Jenny Rowland is the research and advocacy manager for the public lands team at the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed in the Center for American Progress Action Fund.