Interior’s people to watch in 2024

By Michael Doyle, Jennifer Yachnin, Scott Streater, Rob Hotakainen, Heather Richards, Hannah Northey | 01/10/2024 01:16 PM EST

Here are seven people to keep tabs on dealing with key issues before the Interior Department this year.

Clockwise, from top left: Laura Daniel-Davis, John Gale, Mike Reynolds, Steve Feldgus, Sharon Buccino, Camille Calimlim Touton, Karen Baker

Clockwise, from top left: Laura Daniel-Davis, John Gale, Mike Reynolds, Steve Feldgus, Sharon Buccino, Camille Calimlim Touton and Karen Baker. Francis Chung/POLITICO, LinkedIn, NPS, BOEM

Personnel is policy. It’s a well-known truism in political circles, and for the Interior Department in 2024, some changing personnel lineups could make for intriguing policy moves.

The personnel worth watching include some longtime agency veterans, such as the National Park Service’s deputy director, Mike Reynolds.

Some are political appointees shifting sideways or upward from another spot, like Deputy Secretary Laura Daniel-Davis, who will be charged with keeping the departmental trains running smoothly for Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.


And some are entering from the outside, like Sharon Buccino, who’s coming from Wyoming to lead the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Here are some of the Interior Department people to watch in the coming year.

Second in command

Daniel-Davis’ failure to win Senate confirmation for one Interior Department job set her on a different leadership track that now puts her close to the very top of the heap.

Appointed acting deputy secretary last October following the resignation of Tommy Beaudreau, Daniel-Davis holds a position often characterized as the day-to-day manager of the sprawling department.

It’s a significantly broader responsibility than that of the assistant secretary for land and minerals management, the position for which she was initially nominated in June 2021. Following two rounds of hearings, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee deadlocked on her nomination and the panel’s chair, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), put the kibosh on further action.

With Haaland frequently on the road and focused on some specific policy areas, the deputy’s role takes on particular significance.

The department’s communications director since the start of the Biden administration, Melissa Schwartz, also has been detailed to a new dual-hat assignment as senior counselor to Haaland and chief of staff to Daniel-Davis. This potent combination of advice-giver for the department’s No. 1 and gatekeeper for the No. 2 makes Schwartz herself another one to watch.

A new BLM job

John Gale holds one of the most important and difficult positions at the Bureau of Land Management.

Gale was hired in October by BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning to fill a newly established senior post as the liaison with local government leaders in the West and Alaska. He’s based in Grand Junction, Colorado, where the Trump administration had relocated the bureau’s national headquarters. BLM has maintained the office, even as the Biden administration shifted the command center back to Washington.

Gale will serve as BLM’s point person on major land use decisions and policies. When BLM last August unveiled a draft of a revised land use plan for 1.8 million acres in Wyoming, for instance, Gale reached out to Republican Gov. Mark Gordon’s office.

“It appears he is trying to build relationships with states like Wyoming even when we have some areas of disagreement on policies,” said Michael Pearlman, a spokesperson for Gordon.

Pearlman added that “it is beneficial to have someone with on-the-ground experience in the West.”

Gale’s profile may rise in 2024, as BLM finalizes a public lands rule that critics call a federal land grab. The draft rule would place conservation on par with other uses of BLM lands, such as energy development and livestock grazing, and emphasizes protecting pristine and intact landscapes.

BLM this year is also expected to finalize revised plans for managing the greater sage grouse, whose habitat covers millions of acres of federal lands across the West.

“Since this is a new position, we will need to see how it works within the existing structure before making any judgments about its efficacy,” said Mary Jo Rugwell, president of the Public Lands Foundation, the influential BLM retirees’ organization.

But Rugwell said Gale’s “extensive experience” working on public lands issues, most recently as vice president of policy and government relations for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, should serve him well.

A seasoned NPS vet

Chuck Sams had never worked for the NPS before 2021, but he promised to rely on experienced agency professionals if he got confirmed as its director.

In 2022, Sams found the help he needed, making longtime NPS veteran Reynolds one of his top lieutenants.

At the time, Reynolds was regional manager of the NPS Intermountain Region, overseeing 89 parks. He had also worked earlier as superintendent of Yosemite National Park in California, one of many jobs he has held during his 37-year career.

Since returning to Washington, Reynolds has quickly become the agency’s public face on Capitol Hill.

As the deputy director for congressional and external relations, he has fended off steady attacks from House Republicans on infrastructure spending, overcrowding and migrants in parks.

It’s familiar territory for Reynolds, who’s held leading roles under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

He worked as deputy director of operations for former NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis during the Obama administration and then took over as the agency’s acting director in 2017 for the first year of the Trump administration.

Sams called Reynolds one of the agency’s “strongest assets,” saying he “speaks truth and is a trusted leader who has served at literally every level of the National Park Service.”

Mining, oil and the Hill

Steve Feldgus was just recently promoted to the position of principal deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management. The move firms up his role in tackling some of the Biden administration’s thorniest issues on Capitol Hill, from mining reforms to offshore drilling.

The former House Natural Resources Committee staffer, who’s served as the deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management since the spring of 2021, could see more of that political heat heading into an election year.

In his new post, Feldgus will continue to help oversee all aspects of the land and minerals management portfolio, including renewable energy development, legacy pollution cleanup and mining reform efforts.

In mid-December, Feldgus at a Senate subcommittee hearing publicly opposed a controversial, bipartisan mining bill — S. 1281, the “Mining Regulatory Clarity Act,” from Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), which environmental groups have warned would threaten protected public lands.

Feldgus has also defended the Biden administration’s proposals for boosting hardrock mining, drawing pushback from the mining sector and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

It has also fallen to Feldgus to answer Republican accusations about the Interior Department’s handling of the nation’s oil and gas program from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico.

House Natural Resources Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) told Feldgus he should be “ashamed” of Interior’s oil policies in a tense November hearing over proposed rules for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Feldgus will likely face similar critiques as Interior enters the last year of Biden’s first term and tries to solidify reforms on public lands like stricter methane pollution standards.

Perhaps the most prominent oil and gas issue on Feldgus’ desk in 2024 could be Interior’s plan for future oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Interior is obliged to hold a sale in the refuge by December.

Cleaning up old coal mines

Sharon Buccino, a professor from Wyoming who worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council for more than 30 years, is now leading the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

In her new role as principal deputy director, Buccino will be tasked with advancing the office’s mission of ensuring coal mines are operated to protect the public and environment, and cleaning up former mine sites in coal country. Buccino is joining the agency after teaching as an adjunct professor at the University of Wyoming’s College of Law and serving on the city of Laramie’s Planning Commission.

Buccino worked for NRDC in a host of different roles, including as director and senior attorney of land and wildlife, where she led efforts to fight a coal strip mine near the Bryce Canyon National Park.

Buccino is stepping up at a challenging time for the office, which has seen a surge of federal funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law to clean up former coal mining sites.

Glenda Owens, the office’s deputy director and highest-ranking official, has repeatedly appeared on Capitol Hill to defend the agency against congressional accusations of releasing that money too slowly — political heat that now awaits Buccino.

Offshore wind expansion

Karen Baker has a hectic year ahead if the office she leads at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is going to meet ambitious renewable energy goals set by the White House..

Baker is chief of the bureau’s Office of Renewable Energy Programs. She is tasked with holding offshore wind sales off the coast of Oregon and in the Gulf of Maine by 2025. She’s also responsible for ushering nearly a dozen proposed offshore wind farms through the complicated federal permitting process.

Baker joined BOEM in 2022 to oversee a souped-up offshore wind program that has been key to Biden’s broader climate strategy. The president has promised to lift enough wind farms off the nation’s coasts to power 10 million U.S. homes by 2030. That requires BOEM to approve 16 offshore wind farms by 2025. So far, the agency’s office of renewable energy has approved six wind proposals.

The Biden administration has also committed to holding sales in the Gulf of Mexico, central Atlantic and offshore Oregon by 2025.

Baker also may have to navigate resistance in Maine and in Oregon. Many Maine lobstermen oppose offshore wind in the Gulf, though BOEM’s upcoming sale is likely located outside the state’s prime lobster habitat, according to a draft wind energy area published by BOEM in October. Oregon lawmakers have raised their own concerns, pushing the bureau to take the advancement of offshore wind leasing and development more slowly.

Baker, who served at the Army Corps of Engineers for more than a decade before joining BOEM, said in 2022 that she viewed offshore wind as a solution to many challenges, noting that it “reduces our carbon emissions, decreases our reliance on foreign sources of energy and has the potential to create new jobs for our economy.”

The next Colorado River negotiations

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton earned glowing reviews last year from congressional lawmakers for wrangling an emergency deal into place on the Colorado River. She now needs to execute an encore in 2024.

Touton is leading negotiations on a new long-term management plan for the river, which will guide the drought-stricken waterway’s flows — and direct any painful cuts — for the next 20 years.

“The next step will be the hardest thing in the history of our organization and in the basin,” Touton said last summer.

Negotiations over the Colorado River will include the seven states that share the basin, along with 30 Native American tribes that have their own claims. The river supports 40 million people and irrigates 5.5 million acres of farmland.

State officials are working to submit a cohesive proposal by March. The implicit deadline is intended to clear the way for the National Environmental Policy Act process to move ahead as quickly as possible, with a final plan in place by early 2026.

Senators praised Touton for her role in securing last year’s emergency deal, negotiated as dropping water levels threatened hydropower facilities at lakes Powell and Mead.

“I mean, I thought it was going to be a bouquet-tossing contest because one senator after another kept saying, ‘Ms. Touton, you’ve done this well. You’ve done that well,'” Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D) remarked in July.