Published June 22, 2017
Under questioning, Zinke refuses to commit to protecting New Mexico’s national monuments
WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, U.S. Senator Tom Udall, ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees funding for the Department of the Interior, demanded answers from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about his plans to make sweeping personnel changes at his agency, including suddenly reorganizing senior career officials and taking the first steps toward drastically reducing the agency workforce as called for by the agency’s budget request. Udall blasted Zinke’s move to make such large-scale and ill-advised staffing changes without informing Congress and even before Congress has acted on the Fiscal Year 2018 budget.
It has been reported by The Washington Post and other media outlets that among the dozens of the department’s Senior Executive Service staff being moved to new assignments in other bureaus or regions of the country are the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) State Director for New Mexico Amy Lueders, Southwest Regional Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service Benjamin Tuggle, and newly installed Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Bruce Loudermik.
Following the hearing, Zinke reportedly told journalists that career staff could either take their new assignments “or resign.” Udall responded to the news with this statement: “On his first day, Secretary Zinke said to his workforce that employee morale was one of this three priorities — but ‘move or quit’ is no way to motivate a workforce. I’m deeply disappointed by that attitude toward the career agency leaders who work hard day in and day out to protect our public lands, waters, and wildlife and the people who work and play on them. These are devoted public servants, and without them, I think the Secretary would find it impossible to be effective.”
Udall also expressed deep concern that — in response to his questions — Zinke declined to say if he would maintain protections for New Mexico’s two new national monuments, Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks. The two are among the slate of national monuments designated by presidents in both parties since 1996 that are now under review by the Interior Department. Udall asked Zinke, “Will you commit to me today that you will respect the wishes of the vast majority of New Mexicans and maintain the existing boundaries of these two monuments?”
Zinke did not directly respond. Udall said after the hearing: “New Mexico’s national monuments were created as a result of an outpouring of support from New Mexicans, and they have quickly become economic drivers in their communities. I will stand with thousands of New Mexicans, including sportsmen and small business owners, and fight to ensure their wishes are protected, and these monuments are not undermined in a political effort by the Trump administration to sell off our public lands to the highest bidder.”
During the hearing, proposed Interior Department reorganization and staffing changes — and the impact these plans might have on New Mexico, Tribes and other states — was a significant focus of Udall’s questioning. “These staff members appear to have been transferred with no clear plan regarding how—or whether—their current positions will be filled. And I have heard that many of these changes are set to take place quickly, potentially by the end of the month. That means almost no notice to the affected staff or the affected programs—let alone to affected states or Tribal governments,” Udall said. “Mr. Secretary, President Trump promised to run the government like a business, but some of these personnel moves just don’t make sense—it’s like taking your head of marketing and putting them in charge of accounting. That’s a bad business decision. Your workforce deserves better—and Congress deserves to know more about what’s happening at the department.”
“To make matters worse, we found out about these changes from The Washington Post—rather than hearing from the department directly,” Udall added, using Lueders’ transfer as an example. Lueders’ “work impacts my state on a day-to-day basis. Amy has served as our BLM state director for the past two years, and she has been incredibly engaged and responsive. Quite frankly, I don’t want New Mexico to lose her, and I’m very concerned about the impacts of other changes as well. These senior executives have expertise specific to their current bureaus, and they manage some of the most sensitive issues that affect New Mexico and Indian Tribes. Yet we have no idea why these positions were selected for reassignment, or how moving these individuals out of their current positions improves the management of the department. We also don’t know how these changes fit into the larger workforce plan for the department that you’ve been directed by OMB [Office of Management and Budget] to assemble.”
Udall asked Zinke to provide, by close of business Friday, June 23, a list of all positions that are impacted by the reassignments and a justification for why the positions were selected, including any input from the Senior Executive Service’s Executive Resources Board. “This subcommittee has an important role in shaping any future changes to the department’s organization—and yet we’ve been left in the dark regarding what your plans are,” Udall said.
Udall, who also serves as vice chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, further said he was deeply concerned about how Zinke’s reorganization proposal will affect the BIA and Tribal programs. “I’m not sure how Tribes are supposed to conduct a meaningful consultation with the department if no one has shared any details of a plan with them. And now the final noticed reorganization consultation with Tribes will take place June 27– in the midst of huge personnel changes that impact multiple Indian Affairs staff, including the acting assistant secretary and the BIA director,” Udall said. “At this point, I’m sure Tribes are wondering if this is ‘consultation’ lip-service – and, rightfully so, because it seems like decisions have already been made regardless of their input.”
In addition to pressing Zinke on his sweeping and short-sighted reorganization plans and New Mexico’s national monuments, Udall questioned Zinke on the administration’s massive and dangerous budget cuts – which would slash funding for the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program by 15 percent, and make additional significant cuts to the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), grants and science programs, BLM, and key Tribal programs.
Full text of Udall’s opening statement can be found below.
Mr. Secretary, you are being asked to do a tough job by defending this budget request.
I appreciate your willingness to come before this subcommittee to answer our questions this morning. And I’d like to thank Olivia Ferriter and Denise Flanagan from the Department’s budget office for accompanying you. Thank you all for being here.
I recognize that the president’s budget request is only a starting point for the fiscal year 2018 budget process. But I want make it clear how concerned I am by the priorities expressed in this document.
In my view, a budget that cuts $54 billion from non-defense programs is anything but “balanced.”
Balanced means fair and equitable—but there’s nothing fair or equitable about this budget request.
Instead, what we have before us today is a proposal to slash more than $1.5 billion from the Interior Department’s budget.
This budget claims to take care of the agency’s “core functions” by focusing on existing federal lands—rather than grants or new land acquisitions.
The result is a budget request that cuts the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program by 15 percent.
It cuts 84 percent from land acquisition and state grants funded through the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Grants and science programs are slashed.
And in the end—after all the other “hard choices”—the budget still guts the budgets of the bureaus that care for existing federal lands.
Funding to operate national parks is cut by almost $200 million. BLM operations are cut by more than $130 million. And the budget takes another $100 million from Fish and Wildlife Service operations. These cuts would have undeniable impacts to the landscape—and to the ability of the public to access and enjoy our public lands.
I’m equally troubled by the reductions in this budget for Tribal programs. Funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs is cut by 13 percent—with nearly every program on the chopping block.
Indian education is cut by $100 million. BIE school construction is zeroed out. Tribal natural resources, law enforcement, social services and water settlement programs are slashed. Even contract support costs—payments that allow Tribes to run their own programs—get cut by 13 percent.
We need to do better. And I think this committee will do better when it comes time to write our appropriations bills.
But even if Congress restores these budget cuts—that’s not the end of the story. There are a number of policy and management issues that still need to be addressed.
Secretary Zinke, I was troubled to learn of the department’s recent decision to stay provisions of the BLM methane rule—despite the fact that efforts to block the rule legislatively and in the courts have failed. I simply don’t understand why it’s a bridge too far to ask the oil and gas industry to implement common-sense measures to ensure that natural resources from our federal lands are not being wasted.
I am very concerned about the hostile position that this administration has adopted towards national monuments, including two monuments in New Mexico that are important economic engines for the region—Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks.
It’s no secret that I am disappointed by your recent recommendations for the Bears Ears National Monument—as well as the process you followed to develop the interim report. I am concerned by your decision, Mr. Secretary, to spend only one hour with Tribal members while others stakeholders received substantially more of your time. I am also disappointed that your report ignored most of the one million comments you received from the public—the majority of which supported the monument designation as it stands today.
I’m concerned about the message that’s being sent to Indian Country about how this administration views Tribal sovereignty—and how the fulfillment of federal trust and treaty responsibilities will be handled by the Department going forward.
And, finally, I am troubled by a number of recent personnel decisions that call into question the department’s commitment to its workforce—and to keeping Congress informed of major changes to the day-to-day operations of the department.
These include the decision late last week to shuffle dozens of the department’s most senior career staff between bureaus—and your announcement just yesterday that BLM has started planning to reduce its workforce by more than 1,000 positions—despite the fact that this subcommittee has not yet acted on your budget—and we are months away from enacting a final bill to set funding levels for the bureau’s programs.
We obviously have a lot to discuss this morning, Secretary Zinke. But even though I just laid out a number of areas where we disagree, I also know that this subcommittee has a longstanding tradition of working closely with your department—no matter who is in charge. I look forward to that relationship continuing. Thank you again for joining us today.
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