Of all the groundbreaking appointments President Biden has made to his administration, perhaps the boldest is his choice for secretary of the interior. Representative Debra Haaland of New Mexico, whose Senate confirmation hearings began this week, would be the first Native American appointed to a Cabinet post. And not just any post. The significance of an indigenous American being in charge of federal lands — cruelly wrested from Native people over centuries and rapaciously exploited for their resources — is hard to overstate.
Most of Haaland’s hearing before the Energy and Natural Resources Committee this week focused on fossil fuel issues, with pointed questions from Republican senators about her stated opposition to drilling and hydraulic fracking on public lands. Haaland emphasized her record of bipartisanship in the House and said that, as secretary, she would be implementing the Biden administration’s agenda, not her own. Biden has issued a pause on new drilling leases as part of a “transition” away from fossil fuels, but current operations can continue.
Still, the appointment of Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, is a chance to set right many betrayals of land ownership and use. Among them is the twisted saga of the Interior Department’s Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was designed to protect and expand access to public lands but which has been raided and abused for more than half a century.
First enacted in 1964, the fund is supported entirely by fees from oil and gas company drilling rights, on the principle that profits earned through the depletion of public resources should be partly reinvested for the public good. No taxpayer dollars are involved. The money has gone to improvements and acquisitions from the Everglades to the Boston Harbor Islands to the Appalachian Trail.
Unfortunately, the fund has been honored more in the breach, as Congress regularly siphons off much of its $900 million annual budget for other causes. The fund received $495 million in fiscal 2020; some years the appropriation is far less. Advocates estimate the fund has been shortchanged by $22 billion since its inception.
Last August, to the shock of many, Donald Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act, pumping billions into a backlog of repairs to the national parks and permanently authorizing the fund’s full $900 million annual appropriation. At the time, Trump’s embrace of the bill was seen as a transparent favor to help endangered Republican Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Steve Daines of Montana, who needed to shore up support with environmental voters. But no matter the motivation: Advocates jumped at the chance to secure the most important conservation bill in a generation, especially since Trump had proposed nearly wiping out the fund entirely just months before.
Then — surprised? — two days after the 2020 election, Trump’s interior secretary, David Bernhardt, a former oil industry lobbyist, undercut the new law by throwing procedural hurdles in its path. One change in particular would have made it harder to use the fund for local projects such as parks and playgrounds in urban communities with a dearth of recreational green space. In 2019, for example, the fund allocated $500,000 for improvements to the Draw Seven Park along the Mystic River in Somerville, and hundreds of other requests are pending nationwide.
In a final (we can hope) twist of fate, Biden rescinded Bernhardt’s order earlier this month. “We’re thrilled that this program can get back to work as intended,” said Alex Taurel, program director at the League of Conservation Voters in Washington.
An important footnote: The two senators who hoped to benefit from their association with the Great American Outdoors Act split the difference. Gardner was defeated anyway; Daines won his reelection bid and spent this week harshly grilling Haaland, claiming she will “blindly follow” Biden’s “radical, anti-American energy agenda.” So much for burnishing his environmental credentials.
In the national bestseller “Braiding Sweetgrass,” Native American author (and scientist) Robin Wall Kimmerer quotes an Oregon forester she meets, who says: “To love a place is not enough. We must find ways to heal it.” There is much to heal. The wheels of environmental justice may turn slowly, but Haaland’s appointment, and the Biden administration’s new approach to federal land use, signal a turn for the better.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.