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Zinke Goes West, Then What?

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke
Department of the Interior
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke

Too many decisions about the West get made in Washington, D.C. At least, that's what the Secretary of the Interior thinks. Ryan Zinke plans to move thousands of the department’s employees out west to manage water, public lands and energy from there. How might this seemingly dull, bureaucratic plan affect the West in interesting ways? Here's how people with a vested interest responded–starting in Wyoming.  

Joel Bousman is a rancher and county commissioner in western Wyoming. His county is 80 percent public land.

"So any decision made by the federal agencies does have an impact," said Bousman.

That's meant both good and bad things for his community, said Bousman, especially its economic base which relies on energy, agriculture and recreation.  

But Bousman added right now is an exciting time, with the Interior Department proposing changes that could mean more control in the hands of local government.

"Because we've always had concerns with the top-down approach of federal agencies, both BLM and Forest Service," said Bousman.

He has always looked for ways to enhance the role of local government in the decision-making process for federal lands because, Bousman said, "it is very clear that the best decisions are always made by people working together at the local level."

Bousman said having more federal boots on the same ground as locals like him could do the trick.

Joel Bousman may be optimistic, but over in Colorado,  Anne Castleis skeptical.

"Well I only know what I've read, so I don't know exactly what the plan is," said Castle, who used to be deep in the Interior Department. From 2009 to 2014, she was the assistant secretary for water and science.

Actually, no one knows what the plan is. It's vague, and it’s already changed a few times. But here’s what Castle said she does know: All this reshuffling is probably a bad idea.

For one, she said, it’s expensive. 

"The department has asked for upwards of $17 million just in its first year," she says. 

Then, there's the fact that most people who work for the Interior Department — about 60 percent of them —are already out west.

"Most of the people are on the land where they should be, working in the regions where their projects are playing out," Castle said, not stuck in a D.C. bubble.

Finally, she said, it's downright distracting, which might sound like no big deal until you think about what these pieces of the government actually do. Take the Bureau of Reclamation, which Castle used to oversee.

"They're getting water to people — whether it's farmers or municipalities. That's their mission,” she said, and it’s no small task. They don't have time for all this hubbub.

In Salt Lake City, political leaders are welcoming that hubbub. Utah has long-complained about federal control of western lands. But now, the state wants the feds to move here.

Tom Adams leads Utah's Office of Outdoor Recreation.

"It makes a lot of sense to be really close to your customer, and the West is the customer of federal lands," said Adams.

He's part of a team that’s lobbying Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to move the department headquarters there, and he said his elevator pitch goes something like this, "Good to see you again, Secretary Zinke. We know you are looking for new places for your federal land managers’ offices. We'd love to let you know more about Utah . . . . We are the number one economy in the nation. We are the third best for education. And we have some of the most iconic landscapes in the world that you manage. And we can provide wonderful quality of life."

The pitch sounds a lot like the talking points the state used to attract companies like Adobe and Goldman Sachs. Both have hubs here now.

Adams said he thinks Utah has an edge over other states for the same reason that companies are moving there. Think powder skiing and hiking red rock arches. Utah and other states are still waiting to find out the Interior Department’s final plans for its reorganization. And while they wait — they'll be angling for a piece of the action. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2020 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Maggie Mullen is a fifth generation Wyomingite, born and raised in Casper. She is currently a Masters candidate in American Studies and will defend her thesis on female body hair in contemporary American culture this May. Before graduate school, she earned her BA in English and French from the University of Wyoming. Maggie enjoys writing, cooking, her bicycle, swimming in rivers and lakes, and most any dog.
Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.
Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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