Harvard Law offers map for a Biden Interior overhaul

By Michael Doyle, Jennifer Yachnin | 10/21/2020 01:31 PM EDT

Harvard Law School has released a guide for how a Biden administration might overhaul the Interior Department, including calls for reversing a Trump-era reorganization and bolstering power for career employees.

Harvard researchers have unveiled a package of proposals on how a potential Biden administration could improve public lands and carry out environmental responsibilities at the Department of the Interior.

Harvard researchers have unveiled a package of proposals on how a potential Biden administration could improve public lands and carry out environmental responsibilities at the Department of the Interior. Francis Chung/E&E News

A Harvard Law School environmental initiative has released a comprehensive road map to guide a potential Biden administration overhaul at the Interior Department, including calls for reversing a Trump-era reorganization and empowering career employees.

Combining myriad policy recommendations with sharp if familiar critiques of the Trump administration’s alleged shortcomings, the new Harvard Law School Environmental & Energy Law Program study illuminates dozens of green new routes Democrats might take.

"If a Biden administration takes office, DOI will need to reverse some of the Trump administration’s management decisions in order to back away from the energy dominance agenda and restore Interior’s capacities," the study said.


The recommendations range from the broad, like "reintegrating and valuing the work of career staff," to the administratively technical, like reforming the makeup of the Executive Resources Board, which assists in managing many of the department’s senior employees.

The study’s four lead authors urge the hiring of more career staff to clear the Freedom of Information Act backlog and "reduce the influence" of political appointees in the FOIA process. The Fish and Wildlife Service should provide "adequate resources to scientists including time, materials, and professional development opportunities."

The report focuses on departmentwide issues as well as on the Bureau of Land Management, FWS and the National Park Service. It does not address offshore activities managed by Interior.

The report is based on document research; prior coverage by E&E News and other media outlets; and 25 interviews with former Interior Department career staff, former political appointees from the Clinton and Obama administrations, and natural resources and American Indian law experts.

The current administration found insult in the agenda to overhaul its work.

"This is nothing more than erroneous, partisan propaganda. The American people are not fooled by the likes of so-called Harvard elites who seek to disparage and misrepresent the Trump administration’s historic record of accomplishments," Interior spokesperson Conner Swanson said today.

Interior officials cite developments including nearly tripling the number of ethics staff compared with the previous administration, significantly increasing funding for Western big game migration corridors and launching the Bison Conservation Initiative.

‘A listening tour’

Echoing the report’s call for reversing the Trump administration’s reorganization of Interior, the document likewise proposes relocating the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters and returning "appropriate staff" — those who work on budgetary issues, congressional relations or rulemaking — to Washington.

BLM, which oversees 245 million acres of public lands along with 700 million acres of subsurface minerals, shifted its command center to Grand Junction, Colo., earlier this year while also reassigning other leadership posts across the West.

Although Interior has never revealed how many of the estimated 174 D.C.-based employees agreed to relocations, E&E News has reported that close to two-thirds of those staffers are no longer at the agency (Greenwire, Sept. 1).

"This move demoralized the civil service, eroded significant expertise at BLM, and will make coordination across the agency more difficult," the report found, noting that nearly 97% of BLM staff are otherwise based in state, district or field offices.

The report continued: "The move hinders agency input on policy, budget, legislation, and coordination with other public land management agencies that have headquarters in D.C."

The report also criticized the Trump administration for "centralized decision-making authority" among political offices within BLM, including former de facto Director William Perry Pendley.

"Interviewees noted that decisions normally left to state and field offices, including individual permit and environmental review decisions, are now directly overseen by often-unconfirmed political appointees," the report noted.

The report points to a recent federal court ruling that found Pendley had improperly performed the duties of BLM’s director for more than a year, but does not mention a subsequent decision invalidating land use plans in Montana approved during that tenure (Greenwire, Oct. 19).

Among its recommendations for a hypothetical Biden administration, the report suggests a new director "take a listening tour" to meet with staff, while BLM would also need to "engage in a substantial hiring effort to fill the many open positions across the agency."

But the document also warns that if reelected, the Trump administration could look to dissolve BLM as a federal agency, or even abdicate management of federal lands to their respective states.

"With a second term, the Trump administration may eliminate positions in the civil service that have remained unfilled, and could eliminate the capacity of BLM staff to conduct important land management activities such as environmental reviews, rulemakings, or land management planning," the report said.

Proposals for a new administration also focus heavily on collaboration among BLM’s myriad stakeholders — including the reinvigoration of Resource Advisory Councils and better outreach to Native American tribal governments — as well as a return to "science-driven planning."

More climate, more science in parks

The assessment likewise encourages the National Park Service to undo Trump-era "politicization of decision making," in part by appointing a career employee to head the agency.

"The former DOI employees we interviewed all identified the absence of an NPS director as the largest challenge facing NPS," the report notes.

The report also criticized the Interior reorganization for giving the secretary greater leverage over park superintendents by eliminating middle managers who served in "buffer" positions between political appointees and park leadership.

"Under the new system, requests go directly from the secretary to superintendents, increasing political influence in park management," the report noted.

As it emphasized elsewhere in its assessment, the study’s authors called for an increased reliance on science in decisionmaking under a potential Biden administration.

In particular, the report suggests reviving an Obama-era policy called Director’s Order No. 100, which directed park officials to focus on climate change in managing natural resources. The Trump administration rescinded that order in 2017 (Greenwire, Aug. 6, 2018).

"NPS should develop an updated Director’s Order 100 to ground park management in science-informed decision making and reintegrate climate change into management planning and other decisions," the report states.

The document did not indicate whether the recommendation came from former NPS chief Jonathan Jarvis, who served under President Obama and was among the 25 interviewees identified by the report’s authors. Jarvis signed off on the original order, commonly known as D.O. 100, in 2016.