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Interior shortlist puts focus on New Mexico lawmakers, tribal issues

Interior shortlist puts focus on New Mexico lawmakers, tribal issues
© Greg Nash/Bonnie Cash

The shortlist of potential nominees to lead the Interior Department is heavily focused on the New Mexico congressional delegation, setting up a potential battle between a senator whose father once led the agency and a House lawmaker who would be the first ever Native American in the Cabinet post.

Rep. Deb HaalandDebra HaalandFormer Sen. Carol Moseley Braun stumps for Interior post: 'A natural fit for me' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience Five House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet MORE, Sen. Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichFormer Sen. Carol Moseley Braun stumps for Interior post: 'A natural fit for me' Five House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet House Democrats push Biden to pick Haaland as next Interior secretary MORE and outgoing Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallFormer Sen. Carol Moseley Braun stumps for Interior post: 'A natural fit for me' Five House Democrats who could join Biden Cabinet Overnight Energy: Biden names John Kerry as 'climate czar' | GM reverses on Trump, exits suit challenging California's tougher emissions standards | United Nations agency says greenhouse gas emissions accumulating despite lockdown decline MORE — all New Mexico Democrats — have been floated as potential nominees, along with Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). Haaland was one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress when she won her seat in 2018, and Udall’s father was Interior secretary during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

Any of those picks would likely lead to a sharp turnaround at an agency with 70,000 employees that critics say has been more focused on oil and gas leases than conservation during the Trump presidency.

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Sources say the early focus has centered on Udall and Haaland — and each has made an effort to show how they would use the role to fight climate change and improve relations with the tribes.

Haaland is considered more of a newcomer to national politics compared to others on the list. But she would be a historic pick for an agency long criticized for struggling to fulfill its responsibilities to tribes — a reputation that has worsened after the Trump administration was slow in getting stimulus money to tribal governments.

“It is notable that our country has finally reached the point where having the first Native American Cabinet Secretary is a serious consideration and there are people putting it down on paper. New Mexico is my top priority, and I am open to opportunities where I can best serve our state, Indian Country, and our country at large and pushing the Biden climate plan,” Haaland said in a statement to The Hill.

She called Biden’s victory critical for climate change and noted Interior would play a key role in transitioning to cleaner sources of energy and “repairing the damage the Trump administration did to our environment and to relationships with Tribal Nations.”

Native American issues would also be familiar ground for Udall, whose office compiled a long list of his work as vice chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and efforts directing money to Native American priorities through his vice chair role on the Interior subcommittee of Appropriations.

Udall’s signature “30 by 30” legislation, which would require the government to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters, has also been incorporated into Biden’s climate plan.

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Though Udall did not seek reelection this year, he has said he is “most certainly not retiring” from public life.

“Senator Udall was proud to work with the Biden-Harris ticket to help win this critical election, and he is thrilled that their message of stewardship of our natural resources and action on climate change resonated across the West,” Udall spokesman Ned Adriance said in a statement to The Hill.

Adriance added that Udall is “energized about the Biden-Harris administration’s vision for conservation” and “looking forward to helping a Biden-Harris administration support Indigenous people and Tribal governments and advance the bold conservation vision that is needed to create jobs, save nature and fight climate change.”

Heinrich, a second term senator, has been active on public lands issues during his time in the Senate, including co-sponsoring the Great American Outdoor Act that secured nearly a billion dollars in annual funds for conservation efforts. Alongside Udall, he’s also been vocal in pushing back against controversial leadership choices at Interior.

“I will do whatever I can to ensure the success of the Biden-Harris administration and the nation that is counting on all of us to build America back better,” Heinrich said in a statement.

Grijalva, who oversees the Interior Department as chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, has also been floated as a contender. He told The Hill that the agency is desperately in need of an overhaul.

“There’s repair work that has to be done, cleaning that has to be done, in terms of whose interests have been represented for the last four years. It's been industry, period. So you've got to correct that,” Grijalva said.

The Arizona Democrat said he is happy to continue serving as committee chairman but didn’t rule out interest in the position, highlighting the need to improve relationships in Indian Country, undo regulations put forth under the Trump administration and reverse the direction of an industry-focused Bureau of Land Management. He said the agency needs to return to its roots as a science-based organization and turn a new leaf after ethical lapses by many high level Trump officials.

“A little science, transparency and accountability would be a nice thing to have,” he said.

The Biden transition team did not respond to a request for comment on potential nominees on Tuesday, but announced its transition team members.

Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at Interior during the Obama administration and a member of the Chickasaw Nation, is leading the team’s efforts to help pick the next Interior secretary.

Many in the environmental world praised all four possible contenders as solid choices.

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“In the case of Sen. Udall, this is someone with a long family legacy that he feels very strongly about living up to. He is someone who literally grew up around the Interior Department when his father was secretary and you still look back at Stewart Udall’s legacy with us today,” said Aaron Weiss with the Center for Western Priorities, a public lands watchdog group.

“Sen. Udall now sees the opportunity to continue that legacy in a really significant way with the 30 by 30 initiative. He recognizes that in order to slow climate change and stop the biodiversity crisis we are facing right now, we must quickly protect large swaths of American land,” Weiss added.

Weiss described Haaland as someone well versed with the issues facing the department.

“Obviously we are long overdue to have a Native American Interior secretary, and she is someone who obviously knows tribal issues, knows western issues, and has been on the House Natural Resources Committee watching firsthand the destruction the Trump administration has brought,” he said.

Grijalva cited Haaland’s role as chair of the Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands among her qualifications for the position.

“There’s no doubt that what she brings is not only historically significant and symbolic which is very important, but she has the capacity for that job — no question about it,” he said.