Donald Hodel was head of the Energy Department before President Reagan hired him to lead the Interior Department. "Being secretary of Energy was a lot easier," he said in a recent interview.
He has a story he used to tell to make light of the complexity of the Interior secretary’s job.
"On any given day, you could be asked what to do with 4,000 or 4 million acres — usually in the West. The National Park Service wanted to make a park out of it, the Fish and Wildlife Service wanted to make a refuge out of it, the Bureau of Land Management wanted to lease it for grazing or mineral search or whatever, and the Bureau of Reclamation wanted to dam up any water in sight and sell it to somebody." Then "in would come the Bureau of Indian Affairs and say, ‘Forget it, folks; it’s belonged to the Indians all along.’"
Ultimately, he added, "it doesn’t matter what decision you make; you’re going to offend at least four out of five constituents and possibly all five if you do your job right."
The job of Interior secretary is widely regarded as one of the toughest in government. The department employs about 70,000 workers, manages about one-fifth of the land in the United States and oversees agencies whose priorities are often in competition, pitting conservation interests against a push for development. Interior is also at the center of escalating national battles over energy development, climate change, states’ rights, endangered species conservation and a host of other hot-button political fights. The current secretary had to grapple with an armed militia’s extended occupation of a sleepy wildlife refuge in Oregon, for example.
Still, it’s a job that plenty of people are clamoring to take in the next administration.
Like any Cabinet job, Interior secretary is a coveted, high-powered position. It has long been an attractive post to Western politicians with interests in public lands management, since the bulk of federal lands are in the West. In fact, there hasn’t been an Easterner on the job since Rogers Morton — a former Maryland Republican congressman — was Interior secretary during the Nixon and Ford administrations.
And there will undoubtedly be pressure to pick another Westerner this time around. "If they don’t, they’re going to get a lot of heat from Western states," said former Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R). "Most of the public lands are in Western states," he said, and some Eastern states "haven’t got a clue about the issues we face with water, for example."
The job has often gone to former governors or members of Congress, though there have been some exceptions, like current Secretary Sally Jewell, a former REI CEO who had no previous political resume.
As the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump transition efforts chug along in preparation for Election Day, there’s already plenty of speculation about who is in the running to take the helm of the department, what issues he or she will be confronted with on day one and how the next administration will steer the vast department.
Greenwire conducted interviews with more than a dozen experts, including former agency leaders, politicians and outside officials, about what’s at stake for the department in this election and who could soon be assuming leadership positions in either a Trump or Clinton administration.
Clinton picked a familiar face — former Obama administration Interior Secretary Ken Salazar — to head her transition operation. The move signaled to some observers that Clinton would pursue a course at the department similar to what the Obama administration has done, and drew immediate fire from some on the left.
"It’s problematic and disturbing," Bill Snape of the Center for Biological Diversity said of the Salazar pick. "The guy wanted more drilling than George [W.] Bush at times. … I think the hope is that by being a potential transition chief if she’s elected, maybe he’ll be operating at a higher altitude."
But Salazar supporters hailed the pick as a promising sign that a Democratic Interior Department would stay the course. And some suggested that despite Salazar’s interest in the department, the choice of high-level appointees will ultimately rest with Clinton and her now-campaign chairman, John Podesta, who led the Obama transition team and is expected to play a major role in shaping Clinton’s Cabinet, should she win.
One of the often-cited names for a possible Clinton Interior secretary is former Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.). The one-term senator lost his re-election bid in 2014 to Republican Cory Gardner in a tight race and is widely thought to be interested in the Interior job. He has family ties to the department: His uncle, Stewart Udall, was Interior secretary for eight years during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
Udall is also close to Salazar. He dropped his first bid for Senate in 2005 — a day after he launched it — to clear the way for Salazar to run for the seat. Before entering politics, Udall was executive director of the outdoor education program Outward Bound.
Udall said in a statement that his focus over the next two months is helping Clinton get elected in November. "I am committed to not only helping Hillary on the campaign trail, but also offering any support I can as she prepares to lead our nation," he said.
Another possible pick is Colorado Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was reportedly on Clinton’s shortlist for vice presidential candidates. Hickenlooper — a former petroleum geologist who was re-elected to a second term in 2014 — has drawn fire from the left for his support for oil and gas development in his state. Hickenlooper may not be interested in the Interior job anyway. He told The Denver Post in July, "It’s pretty unlikely I would take a Cabinet position, to be very blunt."
In light of Clinton’s promise to fill her Cabinet with at least 50 percent women, observers are also scouting for potential female secretaries. Only two women have ever led the department since its inception in 1849: Gale Norton under George W. Bush and Jewell.
"Interior is one [agency] where that’s possible," said Bill Meadows, former president of the Wilderness Society. "I think there’s going to be a really serious look at having a woman."
Chris Gregoire, the former two-term Democratic governor of Washington, is also cited as a possible pick. She was previously rumored to be in the running during the Obama administration, prior to Jewell’s nomination. Another possible Clinton choice is Felicia Marcus, who was U.S. EPA’s San Francisco-based regional administrator during the Bill Clinton administration before she worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council and joined California’s State Water Resources Control Board.
Washington’s current Democratic governor, Jay Inslee, could be another candidate for the job; he was also rumored to be in the running when Obama was looking to replace Salazar. Other former Western Democratic governors whose names have been mentioned as possibilities include former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and former Wyoming Gov. David Freudenthal.
Clinton could decide to tap a senator for the post. Both of New Mexico’s sitting Democratic senators — Tom Udall (Mark Udall’s cousin and Stewart Udall’s son) and Martin Heinrich — have been mentioned as possible contenders. Senators are sometimes seen as easier prospects for confirmation by the chamber, but those selections can at times be politically risky, depending on which party takes the open Senate seat. In New Mexico, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez would pick the replacement if a senator left. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), a lifelong hunter and former co-chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, was also named as a possible contender.
Several current and former Democratic Interior officials could also make Clinton’s shortlist. They include David Hayes, who was deputy secretary during both the Obama and Bill Clinton administrations; Michael Connor, Interior’s current deputy secretary; and Jim Lyons, who is now deputy assistant secretary of land and minerals management.
In 2012, there was a push by a coalition of greens and other advocacy groups urging Obama to nominate Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) as the next Interior secretary. Those groups included the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (E&ENews PM, Dec. 10, 2012).
Asked this week whether he would be interested in the job, Grijalva said, "The interest hasn’t waned, but that’s going to be a choice of President Hillary Clinton."
He added, "I think some of the challenges have actually aggravated since four years ago into Interior’s jurisdiction. I think whoever comes in has got to be prepared to deal with those challenges and deal to some extent to the resistance this Congress has provided all the way along and the opposition to any real improvements in those areas. No funding, the budget has been squeezed. Wildfires haven’t been dealt with … and the list goes on and on."
Given Trump’s political newcomer status, it’s less clear how he might tack on public lands policy and which candidates might be in the running to lead a Trump administration Interior Department.
"You can be assured that if I’m not directly involved, I’m going to be that very, very loud voice in his ear. Between my brother and myself, no one understands the issues better than us. No one in politics lives the lifestyle more than us," Trump Jr. told the magazine. "And we are going to do whatever we can to make sure that any kind of Trump presidency is going to be the best since Theodore Roosevelt for outdoorsmen, for hunters, for our public lands, and for this country as it relates to anything in the great outdoors."
Trump Jr. told The New Yorker earlier this year that he supports keeping public lands public. "I’m in the fortunate position to be able to buy some land on my own, but not everyone has that ability," he said.
However, an anti-nepotism law first passed in 1967 (a few years after President Kennedy appointed his brother as attorney general) makes it illegal for government officials to employ their relatives, and appears to bar Trump from naming his son head of Interior.
A Trump administration would have plenty of Republican public lands experts or Western officials to choose from, should he decide to look there for a nominee.
Idaho Republican Gov. Butch Otter is one possibility for the Interior post. A former Idaho congressman, Otter initially endorsed GOP candidate John Kasich for president, but he’s since backed Trump.
Regarding whether he’d be interested in an Interior Department position, Otter said in a statement, "I’ve often said I have the best job in the world right now, and I get to live here in Idaho rather than in Washington, D.C. But if the president calls, you answer, and I would be proud to serve in a Trump administration."
Other Western Republican governors floated as possible picks include Wyoming’s Matt Mead, South Dakota’s Dennis Daugaard, Nevada’s Brian Sandoval, Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, and Susana Martinez of New Mexico — the first U.S. Hispanic female governor.
In May, Trump accused Martinez of "not doing the job," although he later said he sought her endorsement. "I respect her. I have always liked her," Trump said, according to The Washington Post.
North Carolina Republican Gov. Pat McCrory was also floated as a possibility. He would be a surprise pick as a non-Westerner, but he could draw attention for his push to increase offshore drilling.
Current and former Republican members of Congress who might be in the running include Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young of Alaska, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, retiring Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis, and Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and James Risch.
Other names floated include Tony Clark, a Republican commissioner on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission who was previously chairman of the North Dakota Public Service Commission; Oklahoma Republican Attorney General Scott Pruitt; and Harold Hamm, an Oklahoma oil and gas executive who is advising Trump’s campaign on energy. The Trump campaign has reportedly considered nominating Hamm as Energy secretary, Reuters reported in July.
Bill Horn, a former Reagan administration Interior official who is now an attorney, said he suspects that Trump "might be looking for someone to go into the agency who really doesn’t come in with a Washington-type background. … He might be looking for somebody with some business executive experience in the West."
Forrest Lucas, president and CEO of Lucas Oil Products, is on Trump’s shortlist of candidates to lead the department, Politico reported this week, citing sources familiar with the campaign.
That report immediately drew criticism from green groups.
"At this rate, Donald Trump’s Cabinet meetings will be so oil-soaked that they’ll need fire-retardant carpeting installed in the White House out of fear of setting the place on fire," said Sierra Club’s political director, Khalid Pitts. "Putting an oil executive in charge of our public lands and precious coasts in places like North Carolina, Virginia and Florida is a virtual guarantee that Trump’s promise to throw open season on drilling in our special places will come true if he’s elected."
Several former GOP Interior Department officials said it’s unclear how many former political appointees would want to return to fill high-level jobs in a Trump administration.
Rebecca Watson, who was assistant secretary for land and minerals management during the George W. Bush administration, said she hasn’t heard much enthusiasm from former colleagues about a Trump administration. "When he has talked about energy or public lands, it’s been contradictory," she said. "I honestly have no knowledge of where he stands on public lands issues," added Watson, who is now an energy attorney in Denver.
Lynn Scarlett, who was deputy Interior secretary during the Bush administration and is now managing director of public policy at the Nature Conservancy, said she expects some former officials would join the Trump administration.
"I think the setting may be very much like we’re seeing play out with respect to national endorsements by Republican leaders," Scarlett said. "There are some that are signaling they’re not going to support the Trump campaign, then there are some who have stepped forward, whether they are governors or senators … and said they will support him as a candidate. … I think the same would probably be true of previous appointees."
Scarlett added that in government jobs, employees can get a lot accomplished even if they’re not in full agreement with the administration.
David Bernhardt, who was Interior’s solicitor during the Bush administration and is now a natural resources lawyer at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, is rumored to be working on Trump’s transition efforts. Bernhardt did not respond to a request for comment.
Former Reagan-era Interior boss Hodel is among Trump’s supporters. Asked whether the department would be in good hands with Trump, Hodel said, "I certainly expect that it would be more in line with what President Reagan wanted for the Interior Department than anything that anyone nominated by Clinton would be." Hodel, who is now retired, isn’t actively engaged in the election.
Whoever gets the gig as Interior’s leader will have his or her hands full.
Looming over the next administration are battles over the proper balance between conservation and energy development on public lands, budgets, the management of the national parks, regulations for hydraulic fracturing operations, the role of renewable energy development and other hot-button controversies.
Another issue the department will be grappling with is "Sagebrush Rebellion 2.0," said Ritter, the former Colorado governor. "There’s a group of folks in the West who have demonstrated their willingness to challenge the federal government’s right to land ownership."
And unexpected problems can always crop up. The Obama administration’s Interior Department was confronted with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico not long after taking office.
If Clinton is elected, experts predict she will continue many of the policies that have been pursued by the Obama administration.
Under Clinton, "the secretary of Interior is going to have one of the more important Cabinet jobs for addressing climate issues or concerns," said Ritter, a Clinton supporter.
There would also likely be some pressure on Clinton to push Interior’s policies even further to the left.
"The keep-it-in-the-ground movement and the pressure that they’re putting on the Democrats is not going to lessen," said former Bush-era Interior official Watson.
"If anyone is to be successful as secretary of Interior, they’re going to have to find the right balance between appropriate development and conservation," said Bob Abbey, who was Bureau of Land Management director during the Obama administration.
Pursuing an agenda that would veer Interior far to the left would mean "you’re going to fail in the mission of what the department is all about," Abbey said. "This country is still dependent upon some of the minerals and energy resources that are found on public lands."
A Trump administration, however, would be widely expected to steer the department more closely to pro-development policies backed by the Republican Party.
"Under a Republican administration, and certainly based upon some of the comments made by Donald Trump," Abbey said, it appears as though he would lean toward land management strategies "with emphasis on fossil fuel."
Don Barry, who previously worked at Defenders of Wildlife and was a Clinton-era Interior official, said he expects to see a "return to drill, baby, drill" under a Republican administration. He expects Trump would seek to "undo a lot of the things that were done during the last eight years."
Trump surprised some observers earlier this year when he rebuffed a position held by many Republicans on public lands management. He told Field & Stream magazine in a January interview that — like his son — he doesn’t support a push for the federal government to transfer its lands to states.
"I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do. I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold. We have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land. … And the hunters do such a great job — I mean, the hunters and the fishermen and all of the different people that use that land," he told the magazine.
That won him praise from some in the hunting and sporting communities, but criticism from other Republicans.
"That reflects a lack of knowledge on Western issues," said William Perry Pendley, president of the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation and a former Reagan-era Interior official. However, Pendley added, "you never know what his real position is on something."