Deb Haaland made history on March 18 when she became the first Native American to be sworn in as a Cabinet secretary. Since then she’s established a climate task force, promised to prioritize racial justice and equity, and revoked a dozen orders issued by both of her Trump-era predecessors. On a phone call earlier this week, we discussed the future of the department, the pressing issue of climate change, and how the national parks might evolve under the current administration.
Outside: Earlier this month, when President Biden’s 2022 budget plan was announced, the Interior Department was set to receive a $2.4 billion increase from the previous year. What large projects does the department have in mind with the new funding?
Haaland: Let me just start by saying that with respect to Indian tribes, one of the big issues, and one of President Biden’s top priorities, is tribal consultation. So, with respect to any money tribes get, that is the first priority—to consult with tribes to make sure that we are doing what they need and what they want. We believe very strongly in self-governance, and we want to make sure that tribes have a say.
In general, with respect to projects, we’re super, super excited about the Great American Outdoors Act. I recently announced that the Interior will invest $1.6 billion in 2021 to address the critical deferred maintenance projects, improve transportation, and send money to the Bureau of Indian Education’s schools. We have a list of priorities, and we are so grateful to Congress. I think it’s a great thing overall.
I’m really looking forward to seeing what the parks and the DOI look like with more funding. I also saw that you recently took a trip to Utah to assess the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante monuments, which were both slashed in size by the previous administration. What were some of the main takeaways from your trip?
One thing I really wanted to do by going to Utah was to meet with stakeholders. There are folks on the ground there who absolutely are invested in that area. So I met with farmers, ranchers, outdoor permit holders, and Indian tribes, especially, who can trace their ancestry back a thousand years to that area.
What I really wanted to do was just talk to people and listen to people so that we can report to the president what we heard and what we saw. We hiked around; I was able to visit a museum where they had beautiful, historical artifacts that had been looted, and the FBI had been able to retrieve those items. Overall, it’s an incredibly culturally significant area, and one that I think is very dear to many people.
I know the readers of Outside are really anxious to hear what happens to both monuments. I also saw that the National Park Service recently recognized 16 new locations on the Underground Railroad Network, and in Colorado, a bill to fast-track the Amache Incarceration Camp has recently sprung up in the wake of so much anti-Asian violence. Under your Department of the Interior, do you plan to expand on these types of cultural and historic monuments? And what important role do they play that the Park Service can help foster?
Well, our national parks and our public lands should tell the story of our country and of all Americans, and I really want to make sure that the story of America is represented.
I know that there are a lot of ways that the National Park Service hasn’t fully been able to highlight those particular areas, but certainly, Asian Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic Americans are all part of our country’s history. So to the extent that we can absolutely ensure that they are represented in the stories we tell through our national parks and through our public lands, of course I would be thrilled to see that happen.
Yeah, I know the outdoor industry is definitely having a reckoning when it comes to inclusion. For the last few years, it’s been a big topic.
Exactly, and the last thing I’ll say is that we want everyone to feel welcome, and to make sure that these places are accessible to everyone.
Another thing that’s really been of interest to me is Biden’s commitment to the 30 by 30 campaign. But to get there, we would need to preserve another 18 percent of our land, which is basically the size of Alaska. I’m curious how you see a path forward to achieve this goal, and what role the parks and the Department of the Interior will likely have in that?
The 30 by 30 initiative is something that a lot of America can unite on. We can come together and all be a part of it. I know that right now we are on track to get a report that’s due to the White House soon. Once we have that report in, I’m sure the White House will look forward to sharing it with the public.
I think it’s an exciting opportunity in conservation, of course, it’s one of the keys to fighting climate change. I feel very strongly that it’s something that so many people can participate in. It’s not one state. It’s not one area. It’s wherever folks want to come together. I think that’s an opportunity for us to come together for that initiative.
What would the report that you just mentioned include? How was it put together?
It was put together mostly by talking to folks. We had many conversations. There’s a 30 by 30 resolution in Congress, so we spoke with folks from Congress and people from all walks of life—organizations, private land owners. We spoke with folks from various states. I vowed to make sure that people who haven’t necessarily had a voice in some of these decisions would have a voice, so I’m really making sure that we’re out there talking to a vast swath of people.
I know you’ve mentioned before that the DOI has a unique opportunity to lead the transition to a clean-energy economy. In a perfect world, what would that look like?
In a perfect world? Well, look, our public lands belong to every single American; they don’t belong to one industry. So I think in a perfect world, it would be putting our public lands to use as clean engines for clean energy. I think we’ve started on that path.
Offshore wind energy is something that we have been active on. I’d like to see us use our public lands for a clean-energy economy. Right now our public lands are emitting something like 25 percent of carbon into the atmosphere, and I think we have an opportunity to create jobs across the country. Like President Biden said, “When I think of clean energy, I think of jobs. When I think of climate change, I think of jobs.”
This is an opportunity for us to create millions of jobs across the country, putting folks to work, fighting climate change at the same time, and making sure our underrepresented communities have opportunities. I feel very positive about those opportunities, and I’m excited to have the leadership of President Biden today, leading us in that direction.
After such a catastrophic fire year for so many national parks, what are some of the key ways you’re looking to protect these treasured spaces from future fires and other climate-change-oriented disasters?
Wildland fires, which are what the Department of the Interior deals with, that’s a priority for us, and we’ve already had many conversations about it. The Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture have joined together to work on this issue, to make sure that we are assessing every possible opportunity for adaptation measures, for example. We’re going to put our heads together and do whatever we can to make sure that communities are protected.
I know you have to go soon, but before you leave: Do you have a favorite national park?
Oh my God! Well, I wish I had an absolute favorite. I’ll tell you what my favorite parks look like. They’re ones that are close to urban centers, like in New Mexico, close to where I live, we have the Valle del Oro Wildlife Refuge, and it’s in the south valley of Albuquerque, so that means that students from various schools can get there easily and enjoy the outdoors.
I really want our national parks to be so accessible. You know, I was lucky that I had a dad who took us out every opportunity he had to be in the outdoors, whether it was hiking a trail, walking along the beach, or rowing a boat somewhere like a swamp. But some kids grow up and their parents have to work two and three jobs just to keep a roof over their heads. I want children to have an opportunity to get outdoors, and I think when we offer those opportunities, they are going to grow up to be someone like you, who wants to visit every single national park, and who wants to protect our outdoors for future generations.
So those are some of my favorite spots—the ones that are close by. But also, I’ll tell you that I love places like Yosemite, and I’ve been to Grand Teton as well. I asked a park ranger the other day what his favorite national park is, and he said, “Whichever one I’m standing in.” I thought that was a really good answer. There are so many national parks that have different things to offer, and I think that they’re all opportunities for us to develop a love for nature and a reason to make sure that we all have a hand in protecting it.
That might have been one of the biggest takeaways of my parks trip last year—learning how to appreciate not just Yosemite or Yellowstone but some of the more niche national parks as well, because nature is so diverse, and I think it helps us unlock different parts of ourselves when we go visit them.
It truly is. I’ve been to Death Valley a couple of times, and I crewed a few times for the Badwater Ultramarathon—it’s a race that goes from Death Valley up Mount Whitney, a 135-mile race. I’ve never run it, I don’t think I could, but I’ve crewed a couple of runners. Being up [near] Mount Whitney at midnight, waiting for your runners to come in, and the sky is black and there’s a multitude of stars. You just feel incredibly blessed to be in that moment. Those are the times that you are grateful for folks who protect our lands. I just feel like everybody should have those opportunities.
And I’ll just tell you quickly: I’m hoping that I’ll get to visit a few more parks myself. I know that there are a number of parks in rural communities that don’t get visited very often, but they’re just as important as the more well-known parks. So I would encourage everyone to take out your national park map, and there’s probably a park close to where you live that’s not as well-known but equally as beautiful. I just think that they’re all absolutely worth visiting.
This interview has been edited and condensed.