Haaland would be nation’s first Native American Cabinet secretary

Biden expected to pick New Mexico congresswoman to lead Interior

New Mexico Democratic Rep. Debra Haaland at a press conference on voting rights in Albuquerque in October. (Haaland congressional website photo)

President-elect Joe Biden is considering U.S. Rep. Debra A. Haaland to lead the Interior Department, a choice that would put the nation’s first Native American Cabinet secretary in charge of the department that oversees most federal-tribal relations.

An individual close to Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat first elected to the House in 2018, said Wednesday that she is in the running for the position.

“The congresswoman is still in consideration for the post,” that person told States Newsroom, speaking on background. “Conversations are still ongoing between the two teams.”

If confirmed, Haaland would take the reins of the agency that manages 70,000 employees and 500 million acres of federal land — about one-fifth of the land in the United States — including 50 million acres of Bureau of Land Management land in Nevada.

Representatives for the Biden transition team did not respond to messages seeking comment. A report in Bloomberg said Haaland was a top choice but a final decision was delayed over concerns about filling her House seat.

Various media reports have also linked retiring U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, (D-N.M.), and former Interior Deputy Secretary Michael L. Connor as potential finalists for the Interior position. Neither responded to messages Wednesday. Connor is a descendant of Taos Pueblo.

Haaland is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee and chairs the panel’s National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee. She has been seen as a top contender for the Interior post. She is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna.

Haaland, 60, holds the 1st Congressional District seat, which includes Albuquerque. Her departure from the House would leave Democrats with an even narrower majority in the next session after suffering losses in the November election.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave a seal of approval in a statement Wednesday. “Congresswoman Haaland knows the territory, and if she is the President-elect’s choice for Interior Secretary, then he will have made an excellent choice,” Pelosi said.

Whoever Biden chooses will face scrutiny from a closely divided Senate during the confirmation process.

Among the priorities for the new leadership of the department will be reversing policies of outgoing President Donald Trump’s administration “that have undermined basic environmental protections,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow and public lands expert at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.

Under Trump, Interior secretaries Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt laid out an “energy dominance agenda” that sought to expand fossil fuel development, often at the expense of conservation and environmental protection.

In pursuit of that agenda, the Trump administration rolled back rules and regulations that a Biden pick could work to reinstate.

“We’ll be working on rolling back the rollbacks in January,” said Len Montgomery, public lands director for the group Environment America.

In 2018, the Bureau of Land Management, an Interior agency, repealed key provisions of a 2016 rule that set limits on methane pollution related to natural gas development on federal lands.

The next Interior secretary could also oversee renewed protections for the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase national monuments in Utah. The Trump administration reduced the area of protected land at those sites, opening them up to new uranium and coal mining.

Montgomery said the use of the Antiquities Act to remove protected acreage was “unprecedented.”

On the campaign trail, Biden pledged to freeze new leases for oil and gas development on public lands. That would reverse the policy during Trump’s tenure, when the department was “dogmatic” about holding quarterly lease sales for oil and gas development, Lee-Kelly said.

Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto has been a frequent critic of the Trump administration’s oil and gas leasing program in Nevada. “Speculative leasing on low-potential lands wastes BLM resources and ‘locks up’ precious areas that could be used for wildlife preservation, recreation, grazing or renewable energy development,” she said earlier this year.

A Biden Interior Department could instead speed approval of renewable energy sources. In particular, an offshore wind initiative started during President Barack Obama’s tenure “hasn’t gone totally cold” under Trump but was relegated to a secondary position relative to oil and gas interests, Lee-Kelly said.

Biden made climate change one of his top campaign issues. He pledged to put the country on track to protect at least 30 percent of federal  land and water by 2030, an initiative that would be overseen by his Interior secretary.

He also made commitments to strengthen the federal relationship with tribes and to bolster the consultation process between tribes and federal agencies.

Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler is a national correspondent for States Newsroom.