Breakthrough: Deb Haaland is Likely Interior Secretary


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The U.S. Senate is now likely to confirm the first Native American nominated as U.S. Secretary of the Interior, but Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, has endured fierce attacks from senators representing oil and coal-producing states.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on 11-9 vote, sent Haaland’s nomination to the Senate floor. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was the lone committee Republican to vote Yea on the nomination. In the debate, Haaland has been depicted as a radical, despite having helped engineer House passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, signed into law last year by President Trump, and a 2019 omnibus public lands bill put together by the bipartisan team of Murkowski and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Cantwell is a booster of the Haaland nomination.

Murkowski was – and is – on the spot.  She comes from an energy-dependent state, but nearly one in five Alaska voters is Native American. Native groups helped rescue her 2010 reelection bid.  She opted to back Haaland.  Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has also announced her support for Haaland, as has centrist Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, who chairs the committee. “I am going to place my trust in Representative Haaland and her team despite some real misgivings,” said Murkowski.  “Know that I intend to work with you because I want you to be successful and, quite honestly, we need you to be successful. But I am also going to hold you to your commitment to ensure that Alaska is allowed to prosper.”

Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, is one of the first two Native American women to serve in Congress.  She was a military brat, daughter of a Native American mother and a Norwegian American father.  She’s a veteran activist, having chaired and rebuilt the New Mexico Democratic Party before winning a House seat in 2018.

The vast oversight of the Interior Department includes the nation’s Indian reservations, as well as national parks, wildlife refuges, and Bureau of Land Management holdings. In Washington, its domain includes Olympic, North Cascades and Mt. Rainier National Parks, the Nisqually and Willapa National Wildlife Refuges, and the Quinault, Colville, Yakama, and Spokane Indian Reservations.

Interior has seen outstanding Secretaries, notably Harold Ickes under President Roosevelt, Cecil Andrus during the Carter Administration, and Bruce Babbitt under President Clinton.  Ex-REI CEO and Washingtonian Sally Jewell served in President Obama’s second term, overseeing creation of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, sought by Native tribes but eviscerated by Trump.

Native Americans have cheered Haaland’s nomination as “long overdue,” in words of Fawn Sharp, who chairs the National Council of American Indians and is president of the Quinault Nation in this state.  “After centuries of invisibility, the best and brightest of Indian Country are rising to the highest positions of leadership across the United States government,” Sharp said in a statement. Added Cantwell, who has worked with Haaland:  “There are people in Indian Country all over the United States that are so proud of her nomination.  They feel like they have been good stewards of public land for centuries before us, and so they are so excited about her nomination.”

But Haaland has become a target.  She visited demonstrators trying to block the Dakota Access Pipeline, has opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline, and has enthused over the Green New Deal.  She has also become a surrogate target for Big Oil’s allies in Congress, upset that President Biden has slapped a 60-day moratorium on granting new oil and gas leases on federal lands.

“Haaland is a far left ideologue who is out of step with Montana,” complained Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana.  “Haaland has made it clear that she will not be able to separate her radical views and ideological agenda from what is best for Montana and the West.” The views of Haaland are “squarely at odds” with Interior’s mission to develop energy resources,” argued Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming.

The statements by Daines and Barrasso can correctly be categorized as “natural gas.”  Daines was a lead sponsor of the Great American Outdoors Act in the Senate, while Haaland was an architect of the legislation in the House. Besides, as Haaland told the Senate committee, industry has thousands of oil and gas leases on federal lands that have not yet been explored. “She’s not a radical:  She has a bipartisan record which speaks for itself and she’s qualified for the job,” Andrew Week, Jr., of Montana’s Fort Belknap Indian Community told the Great Falls Tribune.  The Big Sky State’s other senator, Democrat Jon Tester, is supporting the Haaland nomination.

Haaland will be on a hot seat.  The Biden Administration is committed to restoring Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, both slashed under Trump.  The Bears Ears monument was reduced from 1.3 million acres to 230,000.  President Biden has also signed an executive order freezing two Trump-authorized oil-lease sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, done on the administration’s final day in office.

Parts of the carbon economy are in permanent decline, as coal plants close and coal producers declare bankruptcy.  The New York Times this week ran a story on one Wyoming county, long used to a coal-based economy, somewhat reluctantly welcoming the arrival of wind farms.  Wind is now supplying 10 percent of the state’s electricity.

The country has also endured disastrous Interior Secretaries such as James Watt (“I don’t like to paddle and I don’t like to walk”) under President Reagan. And there was Trump appointee Ryan Zinke, caught up by Sen. Cantwell over a $12,375 taxpayer-funded air charter from Las Vegas to his home in Kalispell, Montana.

Coal has been to West Virginia what oil is to Alaska, yet Sen. Manchin sent Haaland’s nomination to the Senate floor with a rousing endorsement.  “Two hundred thirty years after Washington called his first Cabinet meeting, it is long past time to give a Native American woman a seat at the Cabinet table,” he said.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. Finally – a keeper of the land gains a position to make a difference. Perhaps Secretary Haagland can begin the process of undoing the destruction of our natural resources. The Native American tradition as users and respecters of the land and not its’ dominator and destroyer will begin the process of restoration we so desperately need. Appreciate your article, Joel, as the nation takes a step forward. Thank you!


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