Hearing highlights urgent need for improved diversity

By Michael Doyle | 09/18/2020 07:04 AM EDT

Interior Department headquarters in Washington.

Interior Department headquarters in Washington. Francis Chung/E&E News

Witnesses united yesterday in telling a House panel that it’s past time for the Interior Department to diversify its workforce.

Alternating detailed recommendations with blasts at Interior’s own racial history, witnesses and lawmakers alike used a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations to illuminate both problems and solutions.

"Discrimination, racism and cultural exclusion has been a part of the fabric of the Department of Interior for more than a century and a half," said Dorceta Taylor, a professor at the Yale School of the Environment who has researched the lack of diversity within environmental organizations.

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Overall, the Interior Department’s workforce was 40% women and 23% people of color in 2018.

"One can argue that women and people of color are underrepresented in DOI’s workforce," Taylor said, adding that "studies of corporate executives … contend that diverse backgrounds, perspectives and experiences in the workforce are integral to innovation and the generation of new ideas."

The subcommittee’s chair, Rep. T.J. Cox (D-Calif.), likewise declared that "the history of public lands and conservation is steeped in a legacy of white supremacy, systematic racism, and the silencing and displacement of Indigenous communities and people of color."

Scott Cameron, Interior’s acting assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, "declined a request to testify," according to the Democratic-controlled panel. But some officials have acknowledged shortcomings.

"When we look at our diversity numbers of employment, they’re not reflective of our communities," Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith told E&E News earlier this year (Greenwire, April 6). "That talent is there, and we need to make sure that we’re recruiting those folks into our ranks."

‘Systemic issues’

More than 82% of FWS’s permanent employees are white. Only 4.5% are Black. In the federal government as a whole, 18% of full-time workers are Black.

At the National Park Service, over 83% of the agency’s more than 21,000 permanent and temporary employees are white. Six percent of the agency is Black, and about 5% is Hispanic (Greenwire, June 25).

Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas noted, and Cox acknowledged, that the problem has existed across administrations of both parties. Recruitment appears to be key.

"There is no secret. You go to where the students are. You invest your time in building relationships, you develop programs with mentors and a buddy system, so you leave no one out on their own," said Sändra Washington, secretary of the board of trustees at the National Parks Conservation Association.

A retired NPS worker, Washington cited the NPS Academy, an initiative in the agency’s Midwest region designed to recruit and retain an outstanding diverse workforce.

The program pairs new recruits with their own mentor for two years, and when possible, places two recruits at the same park or in close proximity.

Whitney Tome, principal and head of beyond diversity strategies at the Raben Group, added that the financial resources committed to diversity, equity and inclusion should be at least 1% of the overall agency budget.

"In order to address systemic issues, anything less will continue the unacceptable results that we have now," Tome said.

The Yosemite question

Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, calling the hearing an example of the panel’s "one simple focus, hatred of the Trump administration," sought to turn the heat back onto Cox.

"Do you believe that members of Congress should receive preferential access at parks, especially when limited passes are available?" Gosar asked.

Last month, the conservative nonprofit Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust asked the independent Office of Congressional Ethics to determine whether Cox "abused his official position for personal or political purposes" (E&E News PM, Aug. 26).

The complaint questioned whether Cox used his congressional office to pressure and mislead NPS when he sought two Yosemite National Park vehicle passes for the July 4 holiday weekend. Other visitors were required to use a lottery system that had already reached capacity.

Gosar, though, did not specifically cite the Yosemite episode yesterday, and his hypothetical question did not elicit a critical response.

"I can tell you that many times, congressional members have come with their staff and their families to visit parks," Washington assured Gosar. "It’s just something that we do."

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