It has been a long time since we have had a president who has hailed from a public lands state and, even though we have had some secretaries of the Interior from the West, they have ranged from the inept to total disaster. For reasons that are undoubtedly our own fault, not only do the unscrubbed masses seem not to know or care where the raw materials that make our modern community work come from, but the intelligentsia in command seem blithely indifferent to the health and welfare of these basic industries.
In an economy which is totally top-heavy with regard to social welfare programs, after public defense, and with the exception of interest on the public debt, every other program and commitment by the federal government vies for a minute portion of the crumbs off the table. Only about 20 percent of public dollars are available for everything from public safety to environmental protection, to banking and securities regulation, to land management. The United States still manages one-third of our nation’s land, with the responsibility divided among the U.S. Forest Service and three agencies of the Department of the Interior.
If these 20-percenters are the orphans of the federal government, the land management agencies are their bastard children and public land in Alaska is the runt of the litter. Not only do we have far more parks and refuges and forest and public domain in Alaska than any other state, but they are among the least-used and most-ignored of those lands. One can practically count on the fingers of one hand how many people travel from the contiguous states to visit some of our national parks in any given year.
To suggest that these lands are mismanaged is an understatement, but the answer is not for there to be more government; the answer is for those who have the President’s ear to make it clear that a leaner and more effective approach to remote land management would better serve the national interest.
In 1980, legislation to protect the national interest lands in Alaska was imposed upon us with the clear and certain assurance that the remaining lands, while undeniably valuable for some purposes, did not rise to the “national interest” standard. Of course, the big “E” environmentalists, who have found Alaska to be a wonderful fund-raising tool, have not pulled in their claws; nonetheless, by dint of inherent constraints on public spending, most of the post-Alaska Native Interest Land Claims Act initiatives have been derailed. The upcoming sequester, whether it prevails or fails, promises a meager future for Alaska’s federal land managers.
Onto this stage has stepped Sally Jewell, Obama’s choice to be the next Secretary of the Interior. She is an engineer with time in the oil patch, a banker, and currently the CEO of REI. She is green as grass, to be sure; however, she must have some business acumen to succeed in running a successful business, especially in the current economy. Accordingly, perhaps it is reasonable for us to hold out some hope that she will steer Interior in a more prudent direction.
I concede that businessmen and businesswomen do not necessarily make good managers of government agencies; however, the hope remains that Jewell might bring some basic economic principles to the table. For openers, one would hope that she will take a long hard look at the Interior budget as a whole and start cutting from the bottom. Interior is managing huge tracts of public land that do not remotely serve any plausible purpose. Even diehard recreationalists do not tromp over limitless segments of the public domain in many places, especially in Alaska. She should unload those tracts onto the state.
All National Parks were not created equally and most of the parks in Alaska don’t need to be classed among the so-called “Crown Jewels.” Candidly, they are included solely because they are remote to everyone, including the public. In Alaska, where mineral exploration is still a viable industry and where mineral development holds great hope for the future, the Bureau of Land Management has virtually abdicated support for mining on public lands. It would serve both the nation and the state for vacant and unappropriated public domain in Alaska to be conveyed to the State of Alaska forthwith.
I do not hold out much hope that Jewell, if confirmed, will lead the charge for a better Department of the Interior, or that she will be anything more than another ineffective figurehead simply collecting her reward for being a good supporter of the President; but if she does want to make her mark, if she does want to make the Interior Department and the nation a better place, the first thing she will need to do is sweep out the entrenched bureaucrats within Interior who have run it into the ground and tell them to leave the financial books and records on her desk on their way out the door.