Then President-elect Joe Biden nominated Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-NM) for Secretary of the Interior on Thursday, Dec. 17. This decision made headlines across the nation since Haaland will be the first-ever Native American to hold a Cabinet-level position. Her selection also marks a significant change for public land access and management compared to the previous administration.
Under the supervision of former Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke, who served in the Trump administration, the department made numerous controversial decisions regarding land use, including opening two million acres of land in Bears Ears National Monument to energy and ranching development.
In 2019, Haaland, along with other congressional colleagues, proposed a bill to restore the monument and protect the estimated 100,000 archeological sites within its original boundaries. She stated that, “Bears Ears National Monument is a treasure that I’ve seen with my own eyes. Part of the mission of public lands is to protect sacred sites and preserve them for future generations, but under the current boundaries at Bears Ears National Monument those sites are at risk of disappearing forever. We can fulfill the mission of public lands and protect the culture and history of our country by ensuring the monument encompasses those areas.”
The previous administration also aimed its sights on rolling back ecological protection and legislation for the wild inhabitants of the nation’s public lands and parks. Most recently, a decision made in December continued rollbacks of the Endangered Species Act, narrowing protection of the habitats of endangered species—a move that Sec. designate Haaland strongly opposes.
“In his final days in office, Trump is rolling back protections listed in this bill. We must do all we can to protect our public lands & all those who inhabit them,” tweeted Haaland in late December.
Though most of Montana’s public lands are National Forest, (which lies within the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture) Haaland’s leadership will help protect much of the land and parks that Montanans call home.
“The Department of the Interior also has incredible power over how we address climate change,” said Dep. Director of the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA) John Todd. “They make lots of land management decisions that include how we develop energy resources… whether it’s coal, oil [and] gas or others.”
A 2017 study on the impacts of climate change on Montana found that the average temperature in Montana has risen between 2 - 3°F and put the state at an increased risk of drought and wildfire.
“Something that we [the MWA] have been watching pretty closely is her support of a bill to rename racist geographic features,” Todd said. “To me, it’s an access issue… It means that these places aren’t welcoming to certain people.”
Between reversing the environmental and ecological protections deregulation of the previous administration and pushing the department towards a progressive agenda, Haaland has her work cut out for her. However, Haaland has also made it clear she’s not backing down from a challenge.
On the day of her nomination, Haaland stated, “A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior. Growing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce. I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet and all of our protected land.”