A History of the Department of the Interior

President Obama selected Sally Jewell as his nominee to become the 51st Secretary of the Interior last week, prompting us to take a look back at a department that normally takes a backseat to others.

There have been 50 Secretaries of the Interior since 1849. Most have been unmemorable, but some have changed the way Americans view their country. At its founding, the department was an amalgamation of bureaus from other departments that no one wanted. For its first 50 years it was one of the most corrupt, filled with political cronies. Change came at the turn of the century, when industry was taking over the Eastern seaboard. The Conservation movement began, and, as settlers moved west, the department was forced to deal with increased conflicts with Native Americans.

By the time of the Great Depression, the Native Americans had been placed on reservations and the department was focused on public works and the recently created National Parks Service. After World War II the department’s focus shifted to the increasingly competing interests of industry and conservation, which is a conflict that continues to this day.

(Grand Canyon NPS/Flickr)
grand canyon national park department of the interior sally jewell

Grand Canyon National Park

President Obama selected Sally Jewell as his nominee to become the 51st Secretary of the Interior last week, prompting us to take a look back at a department that normally takes a backseat to others.

There have been 50 Secretaries of the Interior since 1849. Most have been unmemorable, but some have changed the way Americans view their country. At its founding, the department was an amalgamation of bureaus from other departments that no one wanted. For its first 50 years it was one of the most corrupt, filled with political cronies. Change came at the turn of the century, when industry was taking over the Eastern seaboard. The Conservation movement began, and, as settlers moved west, the department was forced to deal with increased conflicts with Native Americans.

By the time of the Great Depression, the Native Americans had been placed on reservations and the department was focused on public works and the recently created National Parks Service. After World War II the department’s focus shifted to the increasingly competing interests of industry and conservation, which is a conflict that continues to this day.

Thomas Ewing, Sr.

1. Thomas Ewing, Sr.
From: Ohio
Served: March 8, 1849-July 22, 1850

Ewing initiated the culture of corruption at the department by the wholesale replacement of officals with those who he or President Zachary Taylor owed for political patronage. For this he was named “Butcher Ewing.” He consolidated bureaus that no one else wanted, such as the Land Office and the Indian Bureau. It would be 20 years before another man came along to change the course of the department.

thomas ewing department of the interior secretary corruption
(Wikimedia Commons)


Columbus Delano

11. Columbus Delano
From: Ohio
Served: November 1, 1870-September 30, 1875

Delano sent the first mission to explore the Yellowstone Valley in 1871. He ordered his men to take exact geological and biological surveys. Their work paid off the next year when the U.S. created the first national park in the world. Three years later Delano would resign in disgrace over a corruption scandal. Following his tenure, the Westward Expansion would overwhelm the department with conflicts between pioneers and Native Americans.

columbus delano department of the interior secretary corruption yellowstone
(Wikimedia Commons)


Franklin K. Lane

26. Franklin K. Lane
From: California
Served: March 6, 1913-February 29, 1920.

On the eve of World War I, Lane took over the department and came into conflict with the growing naturalist movement in the country. Against the opposition of one of America’s most celebrated explorers, John Muir, Lane helped dam the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park and began the development of resource industries in Alaska. In contrast, Stephen Mather, a member of the Sierra Club, convinced him to found the National Park Service in 1916 and to allow Mather to run it.

franklin lane department of the interior secretary national park service
(Wikimedia Commons)


Harold L. Ickes

32. Harold L. Ickes
From: Illinois
Served: March 4, 1933-February 15, 1946

Ickes served for 13 years, the longest of any Interior Secretary. He established Kings Canyon National Park and ordered the desegregation of the national parks, but he was most well-known for his work as director of the Public Works Administration during the Great Depression. In 1938, as Hitler was stripping away the rights of Jews in Germany, Ickes proposed a plan to allow them to settle in Alaska and spur its development. The plan ultimately failed.

FDR harold ickes department of the interior secretary PWA desegregation
(Wikimedia Commons)


Stewart Udall

37. Stewart Udall
From: Arizona
Served: January 21, 1969-November 25, 1970

Udall was one of the pioneers of the environmental movement and the headquarters of the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., bear his name as a testament to his work. He expanded federal public lands and enacted environmental laws. His book, The Quiet Crisis, is credited with raising awareness of pollution’s dangers, overuse of resources, and dwindling open spaces.

stewart udall department of the interior secretary grand canyon environmentalism
(Grand Canyon NPS/Flickr)


Walter Hickel

38. Walter Hickel
From: Alaska
Served: January 24, 1969-November 25, 1970

When Richard Nixon summoned him to become Secretary of the Interior Hickel politely declined. When Nixon said his decision was final, only then did Hickel board a plane to D.C. Environmentalists feared that he would expand development in Alaska, but he turned out to be on their side, working to safeguard his state. Nixon fired him after he wrote a letter critical of the administration’s handling of the shootings at Kent State University.

walter hickel department of the interior secretary environmentalism alaska
(Wikimedia Commons)


Cecil Andrus

42. Cecil Andrus
From: Idaho
Served: January 23, 1977-January 20, 1981

Andrus is recorded as having said to an aide: “One of the best ways to tell if we’re doing something right, is when both sides are ticked off at us.” In that measure, Andrus succeeded. His greatest accomplishment was the passage of the Alaska Lands Act in 1980, which created the still-controversial Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

(Wikimedia Commons)


James Watt

43. James Watt
From: Colorado
Served: January 23, 1981-November 8, 1983

In 2008, Time magazine named Watt the sixth worst cabinet member in United States history. Watt was blatantly anti-environment and worked to remove national park status in several states. He also reduced many of the safety requirements created to safeguard people from disasters in oil and mineral excavation.

james watt department of the interior secretary reagan oil industry
(Wikimedia Commons)


Bruce Babbitt

47. Bruce Babbitt
From: Arizona
Served: January 22, 1993-January 2, 2001

One of the most celebrated secretaries in the history of the department, Babbitt created the National Landscapes program, which allowed the creation of 15 national monuments and 14 national conservation areas. He has been a strident critic of the Obama administration’s friendliness to the energy industry.

bruce babbitt secretary department of the interior clinton national park service
(Wikimedia Commons)


Gale Norton

48. Gale Norton
From: Colorado
Served: January 31, 2001-March 31, 2006

Norton is primarily noted for being the first woman to run the Department of the Interior. She actively campaigned against environmental interests and equal rights for homosexuals after her first husband came out of the closet. She resigned in 2006 over ethical allegations and was later investigated for her connections to Royal Dutch Shell, which she awarded with billions of dollars in contracts and worked for after her resignation.

gale norton department of the interior secretary bush resignation
(Wikimedia Commons)


Dirk Kempthorne

49. Dirk Kempthorne
From: Idaho
Served: May 29, 2006-January 19, 2009

Kempthorne received harsh criticism for going the longest period of time of any secretary without adding a species to the protected species list. Under Kempthorne’s tenure, employees from the Minerals Management Service violated ethical rules related to lobbying and, according to the investigation, “frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.”

dirk kempthorne secretary department of the interior minerals management
(Wikimedia Commons)


Ken Salazar

50. Ken Salazar
From: Colorado
Served: January 20, 2009-Present

With a budget of $20 billion and management of 20 percent of American land, the Department of the Interior found itself caught between the interests of the mineral and gas industries and the environmental movement. Salazar has been criticized for being slow to grant leases to land for oil companies, but has also been attacked for giving away too much to land to these same industries.

secretary department of the interior leasing national parks ken salazar
(Wikimedia Commons)

Filed To: Politics / National Parks
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