Eye on Washington April, 2021

by Dan Sealy, NEC Legislative analyst

New Leadership 

Transition for the new administration has been intentionally slowed by outgoing leadership. President Biden’s priority has been confirmation of officials in national security, economy and justice while conservation leadership had to wait.  There is, however, some progress to report. Change is in the air. 

Secretary of Agriculture- Tom Vilsack

The heart of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) is farming, crops, and ranching; feeding the nation’s people. In the west and Pacific Northwest, when residents think about the USDA, the US Forest Service (USFS) and its impacts on public lands comes to mind instead of the programs that benefit nearby ranchers and organic farms. That uncomfortable juxtaposition of forestry administered by farmers has been the crux of decades of frustration. Attempts to move the USFS from the USDA to a more sympathetic Department of the Interior has failed even under the most friendly of political climates. Tom Vilsack was confirmed as Sec. of the USDA, a position he also served under President Obama. He held his first employee Town Hall on March 4 to reintroduce himself. He outlined new priorities of the Biden Administration and reassured the demoralized employees of better days to come. Key to conservation priorities are: food and nutrition insecurity, departmental diversity and inclusion, and climate change. Yes, climate change is back. In response to employees’ questions he reiterated his better understanding of the role of the strong USDA science and research that promotes better nutrition and better conservation of agricultural lands. He spoke directly of the agency’s responsibilities to solve the problems of the climate crisis. When Chief of the US Forest Service (USFS), Vicki Christiansen, asked about his priorities for the USFS he acknowledged that the workload and responsibilities of the USFS is greater than the budget to perform all of those duties. He said he would work with the administration and congressional supporters to find ways to fund important programs. He restated he understood the role our forests play in carbon sequestration. Vilsack committed specifically to allowing the agency scientists to work independently of politics. He also committed to re-engaging the Civilian Conservation Corps, originally created by President Roosevelt during the Great Depression,  but in a new role to tackle the climate crisis and as a means to introduce a new, diverse youth to the mission of the USDA. 

Secretary of the interior Deb Haaland

Rep. Deb Haaland (formerly D-NM) was confirmed by the full Senate by a vote of  51 yea – 40 nay. She received support from Senators Murkowski (R-AK) Collins (R-ME) and Manchin (D-WV.) As a member of the Laguna Pueblo, she is the first Native American to serve as the Secretary of the Interior and also the first to hold a cabinet level position. Oil industry representatives opposed her nomination because Haaland supports President Biden’s clamping down on new drilling permits on federal lands and waters. Haaland personally attended rallies supporting tribes protesting the Dakota Access oil pipeline. When challenged regarding her support of that protest, she responded, “The reason I did that is because I agreed with the tribe that they felt they weren’t consulted in the best way. I know that tribal consultation is important, and that was the reason that I was there.” Having a Native American as the head of the department that oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs is more than optics; she will have an opportunity to make real change in an agency that is fraught with lack of trust, a poor record on providing education and health services to tribes, and intertribal tensions.