Above: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks before the Public Lands Council March 28, 2017. Photo: @SecretaryZinke
The new Secretary of the Interior has considered having his department SHARE the U.S. Forest Service (FS) with the Department of Agriculture, where the FS currently resides.
There have been many discussions and some serious proposals about transferring the FS from the Department of Agriculture to other departments such as Interior, or creating a new Department of Natural Resources (or Conservation).
And there has been idle chatter about siphoning off the 13,000 wildland firefighters (who usually have job titles like Forestry Technician) in the Agriculture and Interior Departments to form a new National Wildfire Service, or moving them all to the Department of Homeland Security.
At the recent Incident Commander/Area Commander meeting in Reno, it was pointed out that 13 out of the last 16 Administrations had proposed some version of merging the FS with the DOI and the four primary land management agencies in the DOI, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the National Park Service. But the atmosphere this time is different — there are reports that the Trump Administration is receptive to a wide scale reorganization and an alignment with leadership that is very interested in land management issues. The word is that new Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is well informed and engaged in fire and natural resource issues.
Up until now none of the reorganization ideas have made it very far through the bureaucracy, but when then Montana Representative Zinke was nominated in December as President Elect Trump’s Secretary of the Interior, moving the FS was again in the conversation. As Rep. Zinke made the rounds talking with Senators before his confirmation hearing his interest in moving the FS into Interior worried some Democratic lawmakers.
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden was more vocal than most and expressed his displeasure with the proposal. When the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted on Rep. Zinke’s confirmation as Secretary of the Interior on January 31, Senator Wyden abstained, citing the movement of the FS as a problem. Rep. Zinke was approved in the committee on a vote of 16-6-1 (yes-no-abstain).
A source we talked with on Capitol Hill who asked to remain anonymous told us that after the committee vote Senator Wyden extracted a pledge from Rep. Zinke that if confirmed as Secretary, he would not pursue reorganizing the FS. With that promise, on March 1 the Senator voted for the confirmation in the full Senate.
Just after that vote, the Senator issued a statement, saying in part:
After several discussions, I received an assurance that as secretary of the Interior, Rep. Zinke will focus on doing his job, which includes protecting our special places and managing the forests already within the Interior Department’s control, instead of engaging in senseless reorganization of bureaucracies.
Our Capitol Hill source said now that Secretary Zinke is on the job, he still can’t completely let go of the desire to move the FS.
In fact, when the Secretary spoke before the Public Lands Council on March 28, he talked about a “joint command” of the FS according to E&E news:
“I may not get the Forest Service, but we’re going to work with the Forest Service and figure out how to not be so stove-piped,” the Interior chief said. Zinke indicated that he and Agriculture secretary nominee Sonny Perdue had discussed a “joint command” model like the ones used by the Pentagon to manage personnel across the military services.
Secretary Zinke may be thinking that this arrangement would not violate his promise to Senator Wyden. However, the Senator expressly mentioned he did not want to see “senseless reorganization of bureaucracies”.
As the new administration very slowly fills jobs vacated by the Obama team, there are hundreds of vacancies remaining, and many of the new hires or appointees have little or no government experience. A reporter we talked with today said some agencies are still in a “think tank” mode, as the personnel lack the knowledge, skills, and experience to hit the ground running, so they are often throwing ideas against the wall to see what sticks. In some cases they can’t tell a good idea from a bad one, or how to implement a new decision or policy.
There are some compelling reasons for placing the major federal land management agencies under one umbrella, but a co-managed, shared, or jointly commanded agency is not a great solution. When a big decision has to be made, which department’s hierarchy gets to make it? When policies and procedures within the departments differ, how do you choose? Who would set priorities? Which department’s budget system would be used? Which Secretary testifies before Congress regarding the FS? Who would the Chief of the FS report to? A bad, half-assed decision is worse than no decision. It would be like cutting the baby in half.