The Proposed Reorganization of the Department of Interior.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has already done some serious damage to the environment with his recommendations to shrink several national monuments in the west. His latest idea is a massive reorganization of the Department of the Interior. Although environmentalists, senators and former interior employees question his ability to pull it off, some of his ideas actually make sense.

One of his ideas is to divide responsibilities for land management around actual watersheds and basins rather than political divisions…like state boundaries which, less face it, are essentially artificial constructs. It makes sense to manage fish and wildlife, water, development, dams and reservoirs, overall land usage…all aspects of a natural environmental zone out of one office. But can he pull something like this off and will Congress have the political will to do something sensible rather than protect their own interests.

For instance here in Wisconsin, does it make sense to manage the state as a unit or would we be better served if Wisconsin were divided around the Mississippi watershed and the Great Lakes watershed? There seems to be a logical synergy to his suggestion.

The proposal would divide the United States into 13 regions and centralize authority for different parts of Interior within those boundaries. The regions would be defined by watersheds and geographic basins, rather than individual states and the current boundaries that now guide Interior’s operations. This new structure would be accompanied by a dramatic shift in location of the headquarters of major bureaus within Interior, such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Reclamation.

“If you look at the way we’re presently organized, all the bureaus under Interior have different regions . . . and are not aligned geographically,” Zinke said. For example, a single stream with trout and salmon can fall under multiple agencies, one for each fish, another for a dam downstream and yet another to manage the water, and each generates reports that often conflict.

But the second part of his proposal will probably be even a larger sticking point for Washington. He would like to move the responsible parties from Washington out to the districts that they would manage. This too make a certain amount of sense…reducing travel times to areas being reviewed, putting responsible parties out in the field, and reducing the cost of hiring and housing people in the expensive Washington area. In the long run these seem like big wins for Interior. But in the short run it would be very expensive to uproot and move employees and possibly buy out current leases and other apparent costs.

Moving thousands of employees around the country would require congressional authorization. Zinke said the Trump administration plans to negotiate the reorganization in the upcoming budget approval process.

Former interior secretary Sally Jewell was one of several people with knowledge of the department who expressed doubt that such a sweeping reorganization can work.

“I’m skeptical about the reorganization and its ability to serve the public more effectively,” Jewell said in an interview Wednesday. “Interior has a broad and diverse mission.”

The department isn’t centralized in certain cities without reason, Jewell said. Agencies share real estate and leases as a cost-cutting measure. Reorganizing could come with massive costs for an agency whose budget is being dramatically cut by President Trump.

“This would be from moving people, giving up leases before maturity, potential severance costs, and substantial disruption to productivity,” Jewell said in an email. In the interview, she said: “Just trying to look at a map and saying we’re going to take Interior and organize it this way may be inconsistent with the mission of Interior.”

This is a very interesting albeit provocative idea, one that I can support at a high level depending on how it is eventually implemented.

And quite frankly, I would support moving other offices out of high cost Washington and spreading them to lower cost American cities. In the 21st Century with modern computer systems and communications, departments don’t have to share facilities the way they once did.


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