Can a well-traveled Interior nominee clear Capitol congestion?

By Michael Doyle, Garrett Downs | 06/18/2024 01:09 PM EDT

Shannon Estenoz could be the next deputy secretary of the Interior if the Senate decides to act.

Shannon Estenoz.

Shannon Estenoz, assistant Interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, on Capitol Hill. Francis Chung/POLITICO

Shannon Estenoz has regularly hit the road since 2021 as a top Interior Department political appointee. Now she’s caught in Senate gridlock.

Interior’s assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, Estenoz awaits Senate action on her May nomination to serve as the department’s deputy secretary. For reasons that have nothing to do with her, it’s a wait from which there may be no easy exit.

“I still think we gotta go,” Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a newly declared independent who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said about Estenoz’s nomination. “We’re gonna try on that. I’m gonna do everything I can. We have to get all the people. You have to have a working government.”


Manchin acknowledged, though, that a promise by a band of Republicans to block a wide range of Senate actions will “slow the process down” as it “takes up more time” for the Senate to act.

If the impasse continues, Interior’s current second-in-command — acting Deputy Secretary Laura Daniel-Davis — can remain as a placeholder for the rest of this Congress, under the rules of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. Daniel-Davis herself is a no-go in the Senate, as she has become so inextricably associated with the Biden administration’s oil and gas policies that Manchin previously blocked her nomination to become an Interior assistant secretary overseeing public lands and energy policies.

Estenoz and Daniel-Davis share similar backgrounds. Both did stints at Interior during the Obama administration, and both worked for conservation groups. Unlike Daniel-Davis, though, Estenoz has not become entangled in fossil fuel debates. Instead, she has spent much of her career working on restoration of the Everglades in her home state of Florida, an issue that has long commanded bipartisan support.

If Estenoz ever does secure a hearing and wins confirmation as Interior’s No. 2 political appointee, she would shoulder responsibilities likely to keep her off the road she’s gotten accustomed to traveling.

“I’ve been all over the place,” Estenoz told a host on the Philadelphia-based WURD radio station in February. “I’ve been everywhere.”

Packed with grant announcements and hearty promotions of Biden administration priorities, Estenoz’s public itineraries as assistant secretary have echoed common themes. Last month, for example, she traveled to Massachusetts and Rhode Island where, the Interior Department said, “she highlighted how investments from President [Joe] Biden’s [initiatives] are helping restore ecosystems for the benefit of both people and wildlife.”

Earlier in May, Estenoz joined Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in St. Paul, Minnesota, to announce outdoor recreation grants. In April, she conducted a weeklong tour of national parks throughout Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. In March, she was in Puerto Rico, Interior said, to promote “President Biden’s Investing in America agenda.” In January, she was back in her home state of Florida for an annual Everglades conservation conference, and in December, she talked up green energy at an international climate conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Interior declined to make Estenoz available for an interview pending the completion of the confirmation process, but those familiar with her work described her as up for the new challenge.

“She is ready to step into the No. 2 slot in the department upon confirmation,” said David Hayes, a former deputy Interior secretary now teaching at Stanford Law School. “Shannon has had valuable hands-on experience in managing two of the largest units in the Interior Department — the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service — along with years of prior experience in the conservation field. “

Hayes added in an email that this “first-hand exposure to all of the tough issues that face the department, including those that have been handled primarily by the secretary, deputy secretary and/or other assistant secretaries” give Estenoz “a solid foundation” to be an effective No. 2.

Together, the NPS and the FWS that Estenoz has overseen since she was sworn in as assistant secretary on July 12, 2021, have a combined annual budget of more than $5 billion. This accounts for more than one-third of the Interior Department’s total, and it covers a huge turf that includes 85 million acres managed by the NPS and a staggering 95 million land acres and 760 million marine acres managed by the FWS.

“She’s really thoughtful and very partner-oriented, very collaborative,” Abby Tinsley, vice president for conservation policy with the National Wildlife Federation, said in an interview. “I’ve just only ever really had good experiences with her.”

Tinsley, who said she has known Estenoz for upward of 10 years, added that she has “always seen her keep a level head,” even while under fire.

“She really pulls her personal self out of it,” Tinsley said. “I’ve been in situations with her where her direct personal work is the thing that’s being called into question or criticized, and she’s very thoughtful and hearing what it is said says and trying to respond to it. She offers, I think, people context, but she’s not defensive. “

But despite the scope of her current responsibilities, Estenoz has yet to make a mark in some Capitol Hill and natural resource circles. Aaron Johnson, vice president of the Western Energy Alliance, which advocates for oil and gas companies that operate in the West, said that “we don’t have much input” concerning Estenoz. Asked about Estenoz, the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), and the chair of the panel’s Water, Wildlife and Fisheries Subcommittee, Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-Ore.), both said they were unfamiliar with her.

“Name doesn’t ring a bell,” Westerman said.

Confirmation challenge

Shannon Estenoz, Joe Biden and Bill Nelson.
(Left to right) Estenoz, then-director of Everglades Restoration Initiatives, talks to then-Vice President Joe Biden and then-Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) at the Everglades National Park in Florida on April 23, 2012. | Alan Diaz/AP

The deputy secretary’s position is often described as the chief operating officer of the 70,000-employee Interior Department. One former deputy Interior secretary, Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), noted in an interview that the precise responsibilities will “depend upon the individual, their personality and their relationship to the secretary.”

Westerman, who has convened several hearings where GOP lawmakers have sharply challenged Haaland’s grasp of departmental details, said that “Secretary Haaland’s only experience was being in Congress for one term, so I think it’s very important to have strong people around her to fill in the blanks.”

Estenoz has seemed to enjoy civil relations with those Republicans who have dealt directly with her, as suggested in a Feb, 9, 2022, exchange with Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah during a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Lee, a persistent critic of the Biden administration’s Western public lands and natural resources policies, asked Estenoz about increasing the housing supply for National Park Service workers by opening up nearby federal land. While the notion might raise hackles among environmental advocates worried about development pressures impinging on park lands, Estenoz welcomed the idea as one worth exploring.

“Senator, I appreciate the question so much, and I want you to know that the park service is, I think, being as expansive and as creative as it can in this question about housing,” Estenoz said. “So I think that really all options are on the table in terms of finding solutions that work for specific parks and for specific workforces or specific parks.”

“Great,” Lee responded. “So it sounds like you would be willing to work with me on that kind of funding.”

“Absolutely, senator,” Estenoz said.

“Thank you,” Lee said.

Bipartisan appeal?

With degrees from Florida State University in civil engineering and international relations, Estenoz served in appointed positions under both Democratic and Republican governors in Florida.

A native of Key West, Florida, Estenoz previously served as chief operating officer of the Everglades Foundation — a major conservation group in the state that has won bipartisan support — before joining the Biden administration in January 2021.

During the Obama administration, she served as Interior’s director of Everglades restoration initiatives and executive director of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force.

The Senate confirmed her in June 2021 by a voice vote, and while at Interior, she has sometimes overseen decisions that have pleased groups usually critical of the Biden administration.

In September 2021, for instance, the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association praised Interior’s decision to allow private ranches to continue to operate within California’s Point Reyes National Seashore. Estenoz said in a statement at the time that the Point Reyes policy “can serve as a model where wilderness and ranching can coexist side by side.”

The plan will allow the NPS to issue new 20-year leases to the more than 20 families currently operating ranches or dairy farms on about 18,000 acres of the 71,028-acre Point Reyes site located north of San Francisco. Thousands of activists wrote in opposition to the plan, and environmentalists are challenging it in court.

“The Park Service has long mismanaged Point Reyes by allowing ranchers to use and abuse the park for private profit,” Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity said when the still-unresolved suit was filed in 2022.

Even if Estenoz ends up having some appeal to Republicans, it may not matter. Her confirmation prospects could be collateral damage from a recent pledge by Lee and five other Senate Republicans to block confirmations and many other actions as a protest to the New York state criminal prosecution of former President Donald Trump.

“We are going to grind the Senate to a halt as best as we can,” Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kansas) pledged June 2 on “Fox News Sunday.” “We are going to fight against every one of [Biden’s] political nominations.”

Still, some roadblocks can be steered around. On June 4, Marshall joined 80 other senators in voting for Christopher Hanson of Michigan to be a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.