Ryan Zinke And The Tale Of Two Fish

WASHINGTON — In 1970, President Richard Nixon laid out a plan to reorganize the federal government to better protect the environment. With strong bipartisan support from Congress, portions of the Department of the Interior and several other agencies were reshuffled to create the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In the 1990s, the research functions of several offices at Interior were consolidated to form the National Biological Survey and later transferred to Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey. Then in 2010, after the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Interior’s Minerals Management Service was divided into three new, independent agencies.

Now Ryan Zinke, the 52nd secretary of the interior, argues, with some rhetorical excess, that the department is woefully in need of another overhaul. “If you can imagine a company or organization that hasn’t reorganized in 150 years, welcome to the Department of the Interior,” he said at an Earth Day event in Texas last month.

Zinke then launched into one of his favorite talking points, a story about the challenges of overseeing a single body of water and the wildlife in it. 

“Let’s say you have a trout and a salmon in the same stream. It happens all the time. Upstream you have a dam, downstream you use it for irrigation, and that stream passes by a Forest Service holding,” Zinke said. “So this is how we manage it. The salmon are actually managed by the Department of Commerce through [the National Marine Fisheries Service]. The trout is managed by me through [the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service]. Upstream, water temperature and flows is generally the Army Corps of Engineers, unless it’s a hydro plant and then it’s Bureau of Reclamation …”

The tale goes on, referencing more agencies, but you get the idea. A lot of agencies have a stake in this complex situation. It’s one that Zinke says often results in conflicting and, at times, irreconcilable judgments about whether a certain action ― say building a bridge or an oil pipeline ― threatens the critical habitat or long-term survival of a species.

“And you wonder why it takes 17 years to get a permit,” Zinke told the audience, without mentioning a specific example. “When I look at it, we are mismanaging our greatest treasures.”

The intended takeaway is that government is dysfunctional, uncooperative and in need of the “bold” overhaul he promised one day after arriving at the Interior Department in March 2017.

As the chief steward of America’s natural resources, Zinke is responsible for managing some 500 million acres of land, or one-fifth of the United States. Among his top priorities is reorganizing the Interior Department in a way that he argues will better oversee those vast resources and prepare the agency for future challenges.

Details of his plan remain scarce, aside from promises to push more staff and resources away from Washington — to the “front lines,” as Zinke says — and vows to manage land and wildlife based on “ecosystems, watersheds and science,” rather than state borders. To accomplish the latter, he proposes to divide the country into 13 regions for purposes of Interior Department operations.

That effort has already had its hiccups. In February, he redrew the maps for his proposed shakeup after Western governors, both Republicans and Democrats, warned that dividing up states like Colorado into several regions would further complicate management.

And whatever the merits of internal restructuring along regional lines, it’s unclear how Zinke’s proposal would fix the trout-salmon scenario, lead to increased efficiency and better collaboration across government departments, or reduce the number of reports that must be produced.

Zinke oversees only one department. He has no authority over many of the agencies in his trout-salmon situation ― namely the National Marine Fisheries Service (which is part of NOAA, within the Commerce Department), the Forest Service (Agriculture Department) and the Army Corps of Engineers (Defense Department). And so far, neither he nor anyone else in the Trump administration has publicly proposed doing away with or combining parts of these agencies or limiting their jurisdictions.

In other words, the trout and the salmon — assuming Zinke is talking about threatened or endangered species of those fish, which are subject to federal protection and management — would continue to be the jurisdiction of Fish and Wildlife and NOAA, respectively. And all the other agencies inside Interior and out would continue to have the same authority and responsibility over the stream and surrounding ecosystem.

Dan Ashe, a former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Barack Obama, told HuffPost he can’t see how “reorganizing the deck chairs” at Interior changes the dynamic Zinke finds so problematic.

“You’re not going to solve that complexity by reorganizing,” Ashe said. “You’re going to solve it by hiring skilled people and giving them the resources they need to do effective coordination.”

Instead, as part of the reorganization, Zinke has advocated cutting up to 4,000 employees — a 16 percent reduction — and slashing Interior’s budget by $1.6 billion. In June last year, dozens of senior Interior staff were reassigned, many to roles for which they had no experience, in a move that a spokeswoman then claimed would “better serve the taxpayer and the department’s operations.”

Ashe said Zinke’s statements suggest he’s moving toward giving certain offices or individuals at Interior the authority to make collective decisions on behalf of the entire department, thus sidelining the responsibilities of others.

The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater. I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.
President Barack Obama in 2011

Zinke’s fish story may sound familiar. At his 2011 State of the Union address, Obama promised a major government reorganization, noting that the last one occurred “in the age of black-and-white TV.”

“The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in freshwater, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater,” Obama said. “I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”

As NPR pointed out at the time, Obama’s statement was not entirely accurate. Endangered salmon that spend most of their lives in the ocean remain the responsibility of NOAA regardless of whether they are at sea or spawning upriver. Salmon that live exclusively in freshwater are Interior’s responsibility.

In 2012, Obama proposed one big shift to reduce government overlap in this area: move NOAA from Commerce to Interior. In announcing his plan, he took a shot at Nixon, saying his Republican predecessor “decided not to put NOAA in what would have been a more sensible place.”

Congress never took action on Obama’s proposal. And NOAA, which focuses on conservation, weather forecasting and climate research, remains at a department tasked primarily with growing the American economy.

David Hayes, who served as deputy Interior secretary under Obama, finds little to like about Zinke’s proposed reorganization. In the latest issue of The Environmental Forum, Hayes writes: “With the exception of one bright spot — Zinke’s proposal to establish a common regional structure for all of the department’s bureaus — it is difficult not to be disappointed in what remains a largely ill-defined plan to meet unclear goals.”

At the event last month, Zinke echoed his previous comments about the reorganization and once again invoked his conservation hero, Theodore Roosevelt, who as president protected more than 230 million acres of public land.

“It wasn’t popular about 100 years ago to take this country on a mission of [protecting] our public lands,” Zinke said. “But now we have to have the same amount of courage to look out for the next 100 years.”

Hayes told HuffPost that Zinke already has the power to “effectively facilitate intra-agency cooperation” among the many agencies under his command. Both he and Ashe wonder why the Trump administration isn’t talking about bringing all agencies tasked with managing natural resources under one roof.

“If you want to be bold ― like he says, Teddy Roosevelt bold ― then propose to bring the Forest Service into the Department of the Interior,” Ashe said. “If you are concerned about duplicative biological opinions between the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA, then propose to consolidate those agencies.”

The Interior Department did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.