Ryan Zinke's Watershed Plan Is 140 Years Too Late

The interior secretary's idea to organize public land by watershed was a great idea when it was first voiced a century and a half ago. But it won't work today.

John Wesley Powell's original map of western watershed areas. (Public Domain)

Ryan Zinke has a fondness for military men. (Have you heard he admires Teddy Roosevelt? Did you know he was a Navy SEAL?)

The latest object of the interior secretary’s affection is John Wesley Powell. A Civil War veteran who lost his right arm at the Battle of Shiloh, Powell is best known as a geologist and geographer who led expeditions in the American Southwest, including the first documented float down Grand Canyon. Those travels inspired Powell, in an 1878 report, to recommend the West be settled in a fashion that would organize the desiccated territory by watershed. Doing so, he argued, would make for a more collaborative and ecologically sound way of managing resources, especially in a region where the most precious resource is water. “Years of drought and famine come and years of flood and famine come,” Powell once wrote, “and the climate is not changed with dance, libation, or prayer.”

One hundred forty years later, the secretary of America’s most sprawling bureaucracy has decided Powell was on to something. Zinke recently unveiled an intention to reorganize the Interior Department’s 70,000 employees and 12 agencies into 13 zones dictated not by state lines but by watershed and basin.

“Taking inspiration from Powell’s concept of watersheds,” Zinke said in a video, “we’re looking at reshaping our current bureau-based regional system of management and moving to a system based on ecosystems, watersheds, and science.” Consistent with his desire to remake Interior in the image of the military, Zinke’s idea is a mishmash of Powell’s ideas and the “joint management agency” concept utilized by the armed forces. Zinke is pitching the reorganization as a way to streamline the Interior Department’s myriad agencies by aligning their missions and goals by geography.

“Intellectually, the idea of organizing more in terms of the landscape in the West—that works,” says John Freemuth, executive director of the Cecil D. Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. “But the devil is in the details. The damage that could be done to relationships and how agencies do business, that doesn’t look like it’s been well thought out yet.”

From a resource management perspective, Zinke is wise to seek Powell’s guidance. Water is the defining resource in the West. Save for mountain ranges and the Pacific Northwest, nowhere west of the Texas Panhandle gets more than 20 inches of precipitation a year. Powell sought settlement patterns in which water, timber, and other resources would be managed in a collective fashion for the benefit of communities instead of companies—and profit.

“For Powell, the water would not be taken out of the watershed or out of the basin and transferred across mountains…hundreds of miles away to allow urban growth to take place,” Donald Worster, a Powell biographer, told NPR in 2003. “So L.A., if it existed at all, would have been a much, much smaller entity. Salt Lake City would be smaller. Phoenix would probably not even exist.”

Alas, this Phoenix-free land of sensible management never emerged. The West today is one of the most heavily engineered landscapes on earth, where water is pumped over and through mountain ranges, and alfalfa is grown in deserts. Overseeing all of it is Zinke’s sprawling department, whose new reorganization efforts many say are misguided and futile.

The issue is one of execution. Reorganizations, as any corporate CEO will tell you, are time consuming, difficult, and expensive. At a time when Zinke is proposing trimming his workforce by 4,000 jobs and favors decreasing the Interior Department’s budget by $1.6 billion, he’s proposing an action that would likely require consultants and untold people-hours and would inevitably shift the focus away from on-the-ground management he claims to prioritize. “Park rangers aren’t going to be out there in the parks,” Freemuth says. “They’re going to be sitting down, figuring out how to reorganize the Park Service.”

Other hurdles await. One is that each Interior agency functions differently, at scales both massive and minute. The National Park Service’s mission is to preserve, so its employees operate under a very different framework than those at the Bureau of Land Management, which must balance conservation, drilling, grazing, and other land uses. Thus, neither agency has the same administrative processes as, say, the Bureau of Reclamation, yet under Zinke’s plan they’d all have to coalesce under respective watershed boundaries. Zinke’s desire to shrink Interior’s Washington footprint by moving more management positions West could also backfire, says Kate Kelly, public lands director at the Center for American Progress and a former senior adviser at the Interior Department, because funding and policy discussions overwhelmingly take place in D.C.

“You have to remember that the Interior Department has vast and diverse missions,” Kelly says, adding that it covers everything from offshore energy management to education programs on Native American lands. “It appears that, through this reorganization, he’s attempting to fit every agency into the same mold, which frankly doesn’t make sense.”

Reorganizing the BLM, in particular, could prove challenging. Both Kelly and Freemuth say western governors and land managers will likely face bureaucratic headaches if the BLM shifts from state-based to regional management.

There’s reason to believe these new boundaries won’t necessarily yield more sound environmental management, either. For instance, Zinke’s proposed regions 8 and 10, which cover much of the Northwest, are split by the Columbia River. This alignment divvies up a heavily managed watershed. And Region 7, the Colorado River basin, pumps water to regions 5, 6, 9, and 11. In the engineered West that Zinke is managing, basin-based zones are, in some instances, as arbitrary as state lines.

Zinke’s proposal also raises the question of why he is considering organizing his department by environment-inspired lines at all. “He seems to be prioritizing oil and gas over everything else…and now he wants to organize Interior by environmental boundaries?” Freemuth says. “There’s a disconnect in grand theory here.”

Perhaps it’s best to think of Zinke’s watershed-based West as a thought experiment. “Past is prologue,” Kelly says. “The Obama administration and previous administrations have proposed mergers and reorganizations, only to quickly run into the buzzsaw that is Congress.” Indeed, western legislators are already voicing skepticism. Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico told the Washington Post that the plan “looks more like a dismantling than a reorganization.”

So unless Zinke can whip up congressional support, Powell’s idea will likely remain one of the West’s great what-ifs.

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