While much of the media is preoccupied with whom President-elect Donald Trump will appoint to high-profile cabinet positions like secretary of state or attorney general, environmentalists and conservationists in the West are anxious about another position: secretary of the Department of the Interior.
The list of names floated so far includes prominent climate-change deniers and oil and gas executives, including Harold G. Hamm, chief executive of Continental Resources; and Forrest Lucas, president of Lucas Oil Products.
To Greg Zimmerman, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, the list indicates the pro-development, anti-conservation approach a Trump administration is likely to take to managing the country's natural resources and public lands. He's not a fan of anyone on the list, but of particular concern is ardent Trump loyalist and former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer.
"Governor Brewer would make a horrific interior secretary," Zimmerman says. "Here's an individual who has a history of making divisive comments and taking a divisive approach. A good secretary of the interior is a bridge builder, someone who can collaborate with all the various stakeholders of public land. She didn't demonstrate that skill set as governor. She's a flamethrower."
Sandy Bahr, chapter director of the Arizona Sierra Club, agrees, writing in an e-mail to New Times that Brewer "really does not have much experience with the lands issues and wildlife issues that are the purview of the Department of Interior."
What's more, says Bahr, Brewer doesn't believe climate change is real, let alone a problem. "I guess she would fit right in with Trump," she says.
Brewer may be best known for signing SB 1070 and wagging her finger at President Obama when he visited Arizona in 2012, but her environmental track records speaks volumes about what she could try to push through if appointed to a federal post.
The DOI is a vast government bureaucracy that might not get much public attention but is actually very powerful. Humorously referred to as the "department of everything else," it manages all of the nation's natural and cultural resources.
With 70,000 employees and an annual budget of nearly $21 billion, its charges include:
- Bureau of Indian Affairs
- Bureau of Land Management
- Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
- Bureau of Reclamation
- Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement
- National Park Service
- Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- U.S. Geological Survey
In other words, the DOI is the agency that oversees all public lands, wildlife, Native American affairs, any extractive industries like oil and gas drilling or hard-rock mining, and the very broad category of environmental science.
Consider that last responsibility, which falls under the auspices of the U.S. Geological Survey. According to the department's website, it's tasked with "[providing] science about the natural hazards that threaten lives and livelihoods, the water, energy, minerals, and other natural resources we rely on, the health of our ecosystems and environment, and the impacts of climate and land-use change."
Imagine all of that under the direction of a climate-change-denying politician who is close to mining lobbyists, and it starts to become clear why so many local environmentalist are terrified about the prospect of a Brewer-led DOI.
(Brewer could not be reached for comment.)
Reflecting back on the years Brewer was governor (2009 to 2015), the Sierra Club's Bahr recalls mostly negative accomplishments.
"She signed an Environmental Audit Privilege bill — [colloquially known as the] polluter protection act — that allows big companies to keep environmental violations secret if they find them in an audit," Bahr says by way of example. "And her natural-resource-policy staff came right from the mining industry, so that was never good."
In May 2010, Brewer made Kevin Kinsall, a former Freeport-McMoRan executive, her natural-resources-policy advisor. An article from the Arizona Daily Star notes that Kinsall was Brewer's third appointee with strong ties to the mining industry.
During her tenure, Brewer generally relaxed mining laws and environmental regulations, which made it easier for mining companies to obtain permits and extract ore, and to do so with less liability.
She supported a bill in 2010 that would essentially open up the area of Oak Flat near Superior to copper mining, and later supported the 2015 land-exchange deal that made it official. The exchange, which Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake secretly added to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, sparked outrage across the state.
Brewer has long championed uranium mining near the Grand Canyon and strongly opposed former interior secretary Ken Salazar's 2012 decision to impose a 20-year moratorium on new mining permits in the area. (As secretary of the interior, she could theoretically begin the lengthy process of overturning that moratorium.)
Her stance on wildlife is no better.
"She does not believe in the protection of imperiled species," says Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Brewer has long been a critic of the Endangered Species Act, and in 2011 opposed a project that was entirely funded by the Department of Homeland Security to set up wildlife cameras and study whether border fences were causing problems for endangered jaguars.
She was also a proponent of Arizona's Proposition 109, a 2010 ballot measure that sought to enshrine into the state constitution the right to hunt. It was voted down.
"She was a disaster for wildlife," says Bahr, citing the appointment of Kurt Davis to the Arizona Game and Fish Commission in 2011.
Bahr calls Davis "a one-man wrecking crew for wildlife and wildlife-habitat protection and a pro at backroom political deals. He has helped make the Commission more political than ever."
Davis, like Brewer, is opposed to the proposed Grand Canyon National Heritage Monument, even though the vast majority of people in the state and across the nation support it.
In order to make sure the state agency in charge of wildlife conservation remained friendly to her views, Brewer also signed a bill into law that allows "a good-ol'-boy recommendation board to decide who will even be considered for Game and Fish," Bahr says. "Apparently she was okay with blocking any women or biologists from serving on the commission again."
To be fair, Brewer did veto a handful of bills over the years that would have allowed ranchers to kill Mexican gray wolves or required the government to compensate ranchers for any decreases in their property value after the reintroduction of the wolves. She also, Bahr notes, vetoed a bill that would have transferred all federal lands in Arizona to the state. (The Arizona legislature attempts to pass similar bills every year.)
Another conservation controversy under Brewer's watch was the 2011 decision to defund and get rid of the State Parks Heritage Fund, which she did in the name of fiscal conservation.
According to an op-ed in the Arizona Republic, "the Heritage Fund directed $20 million in Lottery money to be divided equally each year between State Parks and the Department of Game and Fish. The $10 million for parks often served as seed money for matching grants. The total yearly impact was typically $20 million or more."
That's no insignificant impact. The fund was responsible for creating and maintaining parks, trails, and historical sites.
"Granted, the economy was tough, but there was no good reason to eliminate this fund completely," Bahr says. "Once you lose something like this — something that was approved by the voters [in 1990], by the way — it is really tough to get it back."
"The interior secretary guides the direction of the agency [and what its] various priorities are," Zimmerman of the Center for Western Priorities says. Whoever is appointed would be charged with managing hundreds of millions of acres for the American people — meaning that if Brewer wanted to, "she could certainly tip the scales away from recreation and conservation and into a much more development-heavy and industry-friendly direction," he says.
"It's easy to say that it's just land," he adds. "But it's also a natural asset that communities across the West value and benefit from immensely."
And most westerners don't want to see all of their public lands turned over to business and development. Last year's Colorado College State of Conservation in the West Poll found that 75 percent of residents in the West believe conservation on public lands is important. The feelings cut across state and party lines.
"Oil and gas is one important use of public lands, but it's not the only use," says Zimmerman. "It's important to have an interior secretary who understands that we can't just put a drill rig on every acre of public land."
So, what are the chances of Brewer being appointed to the DOI? It's hard to say.
"We know the president-elect values loyalty, which is fine, but it's also incredibly dangerous, because he needs experts running the government," Zimmerman says. He worries that Trump sees these appointments as "lollipops to give out to people who stood by his side."
Asked if Brewer would be better than anyone else on Trump's list, Bahr says, "There are no choices on Donald Trump's shortlist that would be good for our wild lands and wildlife. There are no choices on that list that will be good for cultural and natural resources."
Zimmerman agrees. Between climate deniers, oil executives, and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin — whom he calls "a Dumpster fire of a politician" and says would be an absolutely terrible secretary of the interior — there's no one on the list for him or other conservationists to root for.
The secretary of the DOI needs to approach the job with a scientific viewpoint and be forward thinking, he adds. "I do think that often the best interior secretaries are western governors, but I think there are a bunch of conservative West governors that would be far better." As examples, he cites Governor Matt Mead of Wyoming and Governor Brian Sandoval of Nevada. "These are serious policy thinkers who care about these issues, who collaborate, and who understand the significance of the job. I don't think Jan Brewer fits that mold."
Given reports of chaos and discord in the Trump transition team, it's unclear when he might appoint a DOI secretary, Zimmerman notes.
"I just hope he's looking behind loyalists like Jan Brewer to people who are qualified and who can actually get the job done and improve his administration. Because the thought that these roles would only go to inside circle loyalists — it's a pretty scary thought."
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