Are America’s Public Lands in a Leadership Crisis?

06/25/2019

The US Department of Interior (DOI) has jurisdiction over about 75% of America’s public lands—including the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management—yet top positions at the largest public land agencies have remained vacant since President Trump took office.


"Zion National Park Entry Sign" by Alex E. Proimos is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Nearly 60% of the critical leadership positions at DOI are still filled by “acting” administrators, including Deputy Secretary of the Interior, National Park Service Director, and Bureau of Land Management Director. These key leadership positions are supposed to be appointed by the President and confirmed by the elected members of the US Senate, providing critical checks and balances that ensure America’s public lands are being managed responsibly and not being used for political gain. However, DOI has the highest level of unfilled vacancies (compared to other departments), and one has to wonder why.

"Deferring top leadership positions to individuals in acting capacity harms our constitutional system of checks and balances by removing the Senate's ability to properly vet and confirm official nominees," stated Congressman Grivalva, Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, in a letter to President Trump.

Some argue that these vacancies are intentional—a way of sidestepping America’s democratic system of checks and balances in order to control public lands for politically motivated purposes. The current administration has made no secret of its efforts to establish America’s energy dominance, at the expense of the integrity of our public lands, and many of DOI’s unconfirmed, acting administrators are former advocates for the oil and gas industry.

Secretary of Interior Bernhardt even amended a Secretarial Order to override the Federal Vacancies Reform Act and allow DOI’s unconfirmed administrators to continue in their “acting” roles. The Federal Vacancies Reform Act states that individuals are only allowed to serve in an acting capacity for a set period of time.

These acting administrators have not been approved by the US Senate, yet they are making key decisions that will affect our country and planet for generations. Access Fund hopes to see Senate-approved officials leading our national land management agencies soon, but we are not holding our breath. We’ll continue to monitor the situation and will keep the climbing community informed.

How leadership vacancies affect climbing

These widespread DOI vacancies are slowing down the already slow decision-making processes that determine how our public lands are managed. For example, National Park Service administrators tell Access Fund that the high attrition rate of acting officials at the leadership level has slowed its ability to provide clearer guidelines on climbing in designated Wilderness areas (Director’s Order #41). Access Fund has been pushing for clearer guidelines on NPS Wilderness climbing management after several parks misinterpreted the original 2013 policy, leading to unjustified Wilderness climbing restrictions.

Photo Courtesy of:
© Joe Sambataro

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