Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Thursday defended his pledge to rebuild his department during a town hall for department employees, saying the reorganization plan will not cut jobs or bureaus but will help streamline its mission.
Speaking in a video feed to the department’s 70,000 workers, the Whitefish native addressed a proposal he announced last month to overhaul a department he inherited more than a year ago, and which comprises agencies ranging from the National Park Service to the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation, overseeing 500 million acres of federal land and more than 1.5 billion acres offshore.
“Last year was about energy. This coming year is different. This coming year, we are going to rebuild Interior. Because our parks are being loved to death,” Zinke said. “Our refuges are being challenged. Our schools are in shoddy shape. If you go out to Denver and look at our USGS building, it looks like a trailer park. I went out and looked at a range out of Las Vegas and it looked like shooting at a garbage dump. And that property belongs to the people. So, we are going to rebuild.”
The town hall was broadcast from the auditorium at Interior headquarters, and included questions from the audience and Interior employees in the field.
Zinke’s plan would reportedly divvy up its jurisdiction into 13 regions spread across the Lower 48, Alaska, the Pacific and Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. Distribution of the regions is based on geographic basins and watersheds, with different parts of the Interior Department located within those boundaries.
“The reorganization looks at more landscapes. It looks at more ecosystems. It looks at watersheds,” Zinke said. “The first step is to look at our regions and try to do a unified region. The regions are not based on political boundaries.”
Zinke said he doesn’t anticipate closing any bureaus or losing employees, though some staff would be relocated, mainly those in the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Land Management, who would move to the West to be closer to the resources the agencies are charged with managing.
“We have more than enough politicos in D.C. But the experts that actually know something, it’s nice to have them on the ground and in the field,” Zinke said.
Zinke said he does anticipate additional cuts under the upcoming Trump administration budget, but plans to prioritize, such as wildfire prevention.
“You cannot hide from the fact that one side of the budget keeps on growing and the other side keeps on getting pressure on it,” he said. “I have faith as a country that we will have to understand that on both sides. It comes at a cost.”
Addressing a question from a budget analyst with the Bureau of Reclamation, who inquired about the timeline for relocating employees, Zinke said, “Don’t hold your breath.”
“It is going to take congressional authorization,” he said. “I don’t have the latitude to make large-scale moves, so I have to go to the Hill and defend my thesis on that. I don’t want to do anything without looking at the unintended consequences. Sometimes there is a thirst when someone new comes in and they say, ‘I want to change everything.’ Well, don’t fix a bike that’s not broken.”
Zinke’s controversial plan to overhaul the department has not been without criticism, including this week from U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, who urged the secretary to consider public input before implementing the sweeping changes.
“The reorganization of one of our nation’s most important departments should be an open and transparent process, and based on input from the people who rely on responsible land and water management for their way of life,” Tester wrote.
Reorganizing the Interior Department impacts more than 415 million acres of public land, 70,000 federal employees, and $12 billion in federal funding, Tester said. The Interior Department also plays a critical role in Montana’s $7.1 billion outdoor recreation economy and our state’s thriving agricultural sector, he added.
“This should not be done without significant public input and planning as the impact will be felt nationwide,” Tester said.