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Will Deb Haaland Make History Or Be Stonewalled?

In The Week That Is, Wilkinson and Sadler talk Interior Secretaries going back to the controversial tenure of Sagebrush Rebel James Watt of Wyoming

US Rep. Deb Haaland on her first day in the US House of Representatives doing a remote interview with a reporter back in New Mexico. Haaland is President Joe Biden's pick to be Secretary of the Interior, the first time in history that a Native American has been nominated for a cabinet post. Some conservative lawmakers in the West claim Haaland is, in their mind, too extreme. Photo courtesy US Rep. Deb Haaland
US Rep. Deb Haaland on her first day in the US House of Representatives doing a remote interview with a reporter back in New Mexico. Haaland is President Joe Biden's pick to be Secretary of the Interior, the first time in history that a Native American has been nominated for a cabinet post. Some conservative lawmakers in the West claim Haaland is, in their mind, too extreme. Photo courtesy US Rep. Deb Haaland

Every week in “The Week That Is,” journalist and Mountain Journal founder Todd Wilkinson and MoJo’s national Washington DC correspondent Tom Sadler discuss topical events relating to the nation’s capital city and the public land West. 

It’s a momentous week on Capitol Hill. President Biden’s nominee to be the next Secretary of the Interior, US Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, will face confirmation hearings in the US Senate. Already, she has met some resistance from western politicans, including senators from Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Haaland’s nomination is historic and so would her accomplishment be, if it gets through. She would be the first Native American to serve in that important cabinet post which presides over the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs—all of which figure prominently not only in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem but larger West.

TOM SADLER:  Let me lead off. You’ve followed Deb Haaland and her votes in the House. Did you expect the resistance from Republicans?

TODD WILKINSON: Even if these were normal times, the partisan resistance probably would have happened anyway, as it always does to some extent. But what's essential to consider here is context.  Among those throwing up a roadblock to Haaland's confirmation in the Senate is US Sen. Steve Daines of Montana and Sens. Cynthia Lummis and John Barrasso of Wyoming.

SADLER: So, do you think Daines, Barrasso and Lummis are posturing or do they have a legit reason to object?

WILKINSON: There is plenty of posturing happening. Sens. Lummis and Barrasso claim that Haaland’s policies would not be in the best interest of Wyoming. You and I discussed a few weeks ago how the plight of Wyoming’s fossil fuel economy is wreaking havoc. The cause is not environmental policies but market forces. Despite claims that Haaland would foment further disaster, and her reassurances that fossil fuel production is not going away, Lummis and Barrasso are grandstanding.

Regarding Sen. Daines, let us not forget that he, who hails from Bozeman, was among those who claimed widespread election fraud occurred and that President Trump’s re-election victory was stolen away. Lummis implied as much too. Daines and his staff made the bold assertion about election shenanigans but didn't produce any facts supporting the claim. For a person in such a prominent elected position to make a whopper assertion like that, then not deliver any evidence, would seem to represent a mark on one’s credibility. Frankly, and based on objective fact-checking, there are actually quite a few assertions Sen. Daines and western colleagues have made on environmental issues that do not align with scientific evidence. They were among the most ardent Trump loyalists on Capitol Hill and for them to oppose Haaland's nomination isn't unexpected.

SADLER: Todd, you've been writing about the West for a long time and you've had a chance to cover a lot of Interior Secretaries going back to...when?

WILKINSON: Well, I had the chance to interview Stewart Udall, who had been Interior Secretary during the Kennedy/Johnson years and by the time we chatted it was decades later. While I didn't have the opportunity to interview Jim Watt when he served as Ronald Reagan's first Interior Secretary, I did get to know Mr. Watt a little when he and his wife, Leilani, lived in Jackson Hole. They both grew up in Wyoming. Since then, I've written about all of the Interior Secretaries that have served in various administrations, beginning with Donald Hodel who came after Jim Watt and William Clark and was in office during the 1988 Yellowstone fires.
Official portrait of Interior Secretary James G. Watt painted by Irving Resnikoff. Image courtesy of US Department of the Interior Museum
Official portrait of Interior Secretary James G. Watt painted by Irving Resnikoff. Image courtesy of US Department of the Interior Museum

SADLER: Wait a minute, you spent some time with James Watt—what was he like?

WILKINSON: Maybe it will surprise you, but I found Mr. Watt to be personable, intelligent and, all in all, pretty witty.

SADLER:  For younger Mountain Journal readers, they may not realize that the environmental movement vilified him as the most dangerous political appointee to oversee our public lands in modern times. Give them a little background on that.

WILKINSON: The controversial reputation attached to Watt is one he deserved. He said some things that were pretty outlandish. He was a devoted conservative Christian and for that, pun intended, he also got crucified for comments attributed to him that he never made and others that were misconstrued.

SADLER: What's an example of things he actually did say that got him in trouble?

WILKINSON: Like many who had disdain for political correctness and what he considered government over-reach, he gave a speech once and tried to cast a playful aspersion at affirmative action mandates that would guarantee there be diversity on government advisory panels. He infamously jested by alluding to the composition of one advisory entity: "I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent."  Public outrage came and he resigned a few weeks later in autumn of 1983.

SADLER: The environmental movement portrayed him as if he was, pun intended, an environmental anti-Christ.

WILKINSON: Watt was a multiple use ideologue. Contrary to mispotrayals, he did not think national parks should be sold off but he did believe that on 500 million acres of public land outside of parks and wilderness areas, they ought to be used to their maximum potential for extracting resources and recreation.

SADLER: What happened?

WILKINSON
: He riled those who were committed to protecting public lands from privatization and holding to account natural resource exploitation carried out in the absence of strict environmental laws and public oversight. He was a champion for natural resource extraction and he didn’t pretend to be otherwise. He didn't want more land added to the federal land inventory—never mind Land and Water Conservation Fund proceeds being used, for example, to protect wildlife habitat and buy out private inholdings. Watt was a founder of the Mountain States Legal Foundation. He thought that by applying free market principles to monetizing natural resources, that's how prosperity is created.

SADLER: That doesn’t sound so radical to me.

WILKINSON: As you well know, the West and regions like Appalachia are covered with examples of where having little or no regulation when it comes to natural resource extraction didn’t work out so well for waterways, land and wildlife that live on it. Largely left out of the de-regulation thinking that prevailed during the Reagan years was fully considering the impacts of what economists call "negative externalities," i.e. forcing the public to clean up environmental messes. Watt also didn't have much use for discussing the intrinsic value of wild places and safeguarding species like grizzlies and wolves for future generations—unless of course they could be hunted. He saw Yellowstone’s highest and best value as a means to generate commerce, not protecting the things that actually generated the commerce. In his mind, public lands should only exist if they produced profit. 

SADLER: Not dissimilar from the ideology of today. It sounds like he probably provided you with a lot of fodder. 

WILKINSON: I credit Watt with helping me understand where conservative rural Westerners were coming from in the early days of my career as a reporter. A few years after Watt resigned from Interior, he and I had some great, very pointed discussions in which I would question his thinking and point out examples of where it appeared the free market failed to stop ecological disasters and where many natural resource extraction industries enjoyed taxpayer subsidies to help prop up their profits. Those exchanges were always cordial and thought-provoking. He was a smart lawyer. He enjoyed the sparring and he was sincere in his beliefs. The way he framed things helped me to better understand why the Trump Administration gained so much traction in the red-state West.

SADLER: Watt chose to retire to Jackson Hole. As you've mentioned to me before, he made a decision that would alter the future of the valley. Talk about that if you would.  

WILKINSON: It is interesting that some people who retire or escape to Jackson Hole hold tree huggers with profound disdain even though a major part of the valley's allure is its wildness that hasn't been totally subdued as it has been in other places. They fail to reflect on the irony that environmentalism protected landscapes they want to be in.

SADLER: Do you think Watt held reverence for that wildness?

WILKINSON: He often spoke of the beauty of nature and the blessings of God's creation. Probably the most consequential thing Watt did, where Greater Yellowstone is concerned, is that in the early 1980s he sealed the fate of Jackson Hole, forevermore, by allowing a major commercial airport to remain there and grow the number of flights and length of the runway in the very heart of the valley right at the foot of the Tetons in Grand Teton National Park. He ordered the Park Service to extend a conditional use permit for the airport to operate and the Federal Aviation Administration worked in deals to bring in bigger jets. The Sierra Club sued and lost. [You can learn more about that by clicking here.]
The tradeoffs of seeking prosperity: When Interior Secretary James Watt approved an extended special use permit for the Jackson Hole Airport in Grand Teton National Park in 1983, it not only cemented the presence of the airport but laid down the foundation for the facility to expand, the runway to be lengthened and number of flights to markedly increase.  A secondary impact is that it attracted fresh legions of second home owners and set off a development building boom. In addition, the fenced airport grounds represent a significant obstacle to wildlife movement and the sounds of jet aircraft detract from the setting. Photo courtesy Wikimedia/ WikiSniki17/Share-Alike 4.0 International License
The tradeoffs of seeking prosperity: When Interior Secretary James Watt approved an extended special use permit for the Jackson Hole Airport in Grand Teton National Park in 1983, it not only cemented the presence of the airport but laid down the foundation for the facility to expand, the runway to be lengthened and number of flights to markedly increase. A secondary impact is that it attracted fresh legions of second home owners and set off a development building boom. In addition, the fenced airport grounds represent a significant obstacle to wildlife movement and the sounds of jet aircraft detract from the setting. Photo courtesy Wikimedia/ WikiSniki17/Share-Alike 4.0 International License
SADLER: How did that seal Jackson’s fate?

WILKINSON: Think about it: a major commercial airport, today the busiest in Wyoming, started initially as a landing strip for bush planes, being permitted to expand into the middle of an American natural crown jewel. Airports bring direct impacts and they accelerate human pressure on places. Be it the rows of Lear jets you see parked today or large planes taking off and landing, their presence can be directly traced to a decision made by Watt. On the one hand, the airport, beside the valley’s incredible beauty, is why Jackson Hole is a world-class destination for tourists and skiers; on the other hand, the fact that you can hear the engine roars of take offs every day at dawn while you're standing in quiet awe of the mountains is still a huge bone of contention. In many ways, it's a classic example of past being prelude.

SADLER: What do you mean “past being prelude?”

WiLKiNSON: As in, clashes that occurred in the past over the definition of conservation short-term thinking vs. long-term thinking. Do we only choose to live in the present or can we aspire to project our values of wanting a healthy environmental into the future? Mr. Watt and his colleagues are credited with starting what we know today as "the Sagebrush Rebellion" and the push to divest federal public lands—turning lands over to states and de-commissioning them in ways that would open the door for them to be purchased by private companies or individuals. William Perry Pendley, who recently served as President Trump’s temporary, unconfirmed head of the Bureau of Land Management, led the Mountain States Legal Foundation. He had stated publicly that he thought federal public lands ought to be sold.

SADLER:  That’s a core goal of the Sagebrush Rebellion, isn't it?

WILKINSON: In fact, there have been a couple of "sagebrush rebellions" in the West and they've taken different forms. One kind of sagebrush rebellion happened between mom and pop homesteaders who came into the West and wanted to farm and raise some domestic livestock  but they got in sometimes bloody clashes with armed and politically-connected large property owners who promoted free-range cattle and sheep grazing. One of the remnants of that era are state laws mandating that if a property owner doesn’t want cattle from a neighbor wandering onto the premises, he or she needs to fence them out. Anyone interested in the ugly fights between small farmers and ranchers and large ranchers in the West ought to read about the Johnson County War in Wyoming. The same forces of power, influence and money that ran roughshod over small family operations earlier sought to clear the open range of Indians, bison and livestock predators.

SADLER: You mentioned there were a few iterations of the Sagebrush Rebellion?

In 1943, Cliff Hansen was joined by Hollywood actor Wallace Beery in staging a revolt against the Jackson Hole Monument, forerunner to Grand Teton National Park. Their civil disobedience involved driving a herd a cattle through the preserve. Photo courtesy NPS
In 1943, Cliff Hansen was joined by Hollywood actor Wallace Beery in staging a revolt against the Jackson Hole Monument, forerunner to Grand Teton National Park. Their civil disobedience involved driving a herd a cattle through the preserve. Photo courtesy NPS
WILKINSON
: Arguably, one of the most symbolic expressions of what we'd call "Sagebrush Rebels" happened right in the heart of Greater Yellowstone, in Jackson Hole, when local folks literally rose up to try and stop the creation of present-day Grand Teton National Park. They didn't want the federal government telling them what to do. They claimed that moving land from private ownership to public would take it off the tax roles and bankrupt Teton County. They claimed that creating Grand Teton first as the "Jackson Hole National Monument" with FDR invoking the Antiquities Act, and then a full-blown national park, would negatively impact the local way of life economically. Incidentally, the same erroneous assumption was made by territorial politicians in Helena, Montana about the creation of Yellowstone, too.

SADLER: You’re kidding right. Oppose Grand Teton National Park. How’d that turn out?

WILKINSON: Looking back, it’s clear that the early manifestation of the Sagebrush Rebellion not only failed but that it was wrong-headed. The late prominent Jackson Hole rancher Cliff Hansen was a Teton County commissioner who helped lead the revolt. Later, notably, he went on to become governor and a US senator. In the latter years of his life, Cliff said—and he told me personally when I wrote a profile about him for The Denver Post—that trying to stop Grand Teton from being born was one of the biggest regrets of his political career.

SADLER: What changed his mind?

WILKINSON: Time and perspective. The tourism economy is obviously bread and butter for Jackson Hole and it's a major engine for commerce in Wyoming. A recent economic analysis showed that nature-loving visitors coming to Grand Teton generated nearly $800 million annually in economic benefit and supported directly or indirectly 8,620 jobs. The mystique Jackson Hole commands today, with Grand Teton as its centerpiece, has also led, as a downside for many local working class residents, to skyrocketing private land values. In recent decades, however, the descendants of local ranching families have become multi-millionaires by converting former pasture into lots for trophy homes and subdivisions. I need to note that Hansen and his descendants have put conservation easements on some of their private land to the benefit of open space, wildlife habitat and the community.

SADLER: The saga over Grand Teton seems to be an important chapter in the history of Greater Yellowstone.

WILKINSON: Not just in Greater Yellowstone; it's a touchstone for many issues we are facing today in the West. 

SADLER: What do you mean?

WILKINSON: Anyone who wishes to learn more ought to read two books by Robert Richter beginning with Crucible for Conservation and moving on to Peaks, Politics & Passion: Grand Teton National Park Comes of Age. A big issue is this: what are the benefits of conservation, in terms of public good, as we look out across differing horizon lines—short-term, medium and long-range? Conservation, i.e. protecting nature from becoming overhumanized, has proved itself to be the gift that keeps giving from one generation to the next.

SADLER: Cliven Bundy, his son Ammon and their followers are credited with fomenting the new Sagebrush Rebellion. How is this different from the one in Jackson Hole and the efforts of James Watt?

WILKINSON: There is definitely a kindred thread of ideology, i.e. the belief in small government,  that land ought to be owned by private enterprise or that public lands ought to be locally controlled. The Bundys, however, are far more militant.  Many ranchers I've spoken to, who subscribed to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the Watt years, see the Bundys as extremists and law breakers whose antics reflect poorly on them and their own credibility. While they won’t say this on the record, many see the Bundys as illiterate attention-grabbing nuisances who speak gobbledygook when it comes to the legal framework for how federal public lands were established and the role of states rights.

SADLER: Let's jump back to where this conversation started, with Rep. Haaland's nomination for Interior Secretary that could be decided in the coming days. What do you think the Bundys make of her?

WILKINSON: I don't have a clue, as I haven't interviewed them. What I will say is how ironic it is that the Bundys and their fundamental LDS beliefs don't really know how to handle Native Americans who have been on the continent for many, many millennia and which predate the arrival of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young in the West by at least 10,000 years. So the Bundys' notion of them claiming use of public lands in a way that predates federalism and statehood of both Utah and Nevada would seem to be in conflict with the land tenure of indigenous people.
The summer after she was sworn in as a new member of Congress, Haaland visited Yellowstone and America's first national park left her in awe. During her fact-finding mission she inquired about park infrastructure and crowding issues, climate change and wildlife. Photo courtesy US Rep. Deb Haaland
The summer after she was sworn in as a new member of Congress, Haaland visited Yellowstone and America's first national park left her in awe. During her fact-finding mission she inquired about park infrastructure and crowding issues, climate change and wildlife. Photo courtesy US Rep. Deb Haaland
SADLER: Sen. Daines has said he would block Haaland's nomination.  He said, and I quote: “I am concerned by the responses I received about the role of the [Interior] Department and the lack of appreciation for issues that impact Montana such as wildlife management and hunting and sportsman access. I’m not convinced that the Congresswoman can divorce her radical views and represent what’s best for Montana and all stakeholders in the West.” What’s your take on Daines’ view of her? Would she a good secretary or does she lack appreciation for the issue that impact Montana?

WILKINSON: Isn't the real question who gets to define who's radical and who isn't? I'm not position as a journalist to decide whether Rep. Haaland would be a "good" Interior Secretary or not. But I would like to know how Sen. Daines would define what being a good Interior Secretary, in general, is, and how that cabinet secretary should act while overseeing a beloved agency like the National Park Service and its sister bureaus like the Fish and Wildlife Service, BLM and BIA?

SADLER: Who was the most ecologically astute, conservation-minded Interior Secretary you've interviewed?

WILKINSON: No question, it was Bruce Babbitt, but I would add in Stewart Udall and Cecil Andrus. Babbitt spent a lot of time in the Arizona backcountry roughing it. He is conversant and has a curiosity about how the natural world functions. He could discuss anything—grizzly bears, wolves, livestock grazing AUMs on BLM lands, water issues, hunting and fishing, the Organic Act of the National Park Service, recreation, the Mining Law of 1872, just about anything and everything related to the environment. He always said the environment defines quality of life in the West.

SADLER: Do you have any thoughts about Haaland's predecessor David Bernhardt?  

WILKINSON: Only what his critics and fans told me. His defenders said Bernhardt cared about protecting the natural world. His critics said he betrayed the public trust and acted more like a lobbyist for the natural resource industry. They would have you believe that he made Jim Watt seem moderate. Relating to conservation, Bernhardt and his predecessor, Ryan Zinke, took many actions administratively that were perceived as being unilateral and not bi-partisan, particularly with energy leasing and moving to hamper the public's ability to scrutinize decisions implemented to benefit an energy industry that Bernhardt had earlier represented as a private attorney.

SADLER: Whispers on Capitol Hill speak of tinges of racism behind resistance to Haaland's confirmation in the Senate.

WILKINSON: Of course, most people who are accused of being racist will deny that they are. And it's certainly not my place to suggest racism is behind opposition to Haaland, though I will say this: The Interior Department was created by the 30th Congress in 1843. Montana didn't even become a territory until 1864 and a state until 1889. Wyoming became a territory in 1868 and a state in 1890. Idaho became a territory in 1863 and a state in 1890. In1843, there were many sovereign tribal nations in the West, meaning free, independent indigenous people with bloodlines on the continent going back hundreds of generations.

SADLER: Your point?

WILKINSON: Since 1843—that's 178 years—there's never been a Native American in charge of Interior, though that department, more than any other because it presides over the BIA, has shaped the lives of indigenous communities and our neighbors in the West. Most of the challenges in Indian Country today stem from federal policies that involve broken treaties, broken promises and racism. That's not an opinion; it's a legal fact. Elected officials like Sen. Daines have said that government needs to be accountable to the people it serves. MoJo readers can decide for themselves if that promise has been fulfilled for fellow citizens who are indigenous. Haaland wouldn't need a translator when it comes to understanding native issues. They are in her marrow and own history.

SADLER: How would you assess the chances of Haaland’s confirmation?

WILKINSON: Well, Jim Watt got confirmed when Republicans controlled the Senate and it was around the time you were on Capitol Hill as a young aide to US Sen. Warren Rudman In 1989. The late Manuel Lujan Jr., a Republican from New Mexico, was confirmed as President George H. W. Bush’s pick to be Interior Secretary with Democrats in control of the Senate in 1989. A quick anecdote related to Lujan. I was sitting in his office at the Interior Department in DC interviewing him on the morning that the US invasion of Iraq started in 1991. We watched the Iraqi oilfields burn while the US bombing was being broadcast live on CNN.

SADLER:  How do you think Rep. Haaland will be with regard to issues of concern to Greater Yellowstone? Daines calls her a radical.

WILKINSON: Again, hard to say what he means by that. I briefly met Rep. Haaland when I was back in DC in 2019 covering a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee where she's been a member. Greater Yellowstone is on her radar screen. She has been to Yellowstone Park and savored her time here. By her voting record and words, she is an advocate for wildlife, public lands and she obviously listens and hears the concerns of indigenous people.

SADLER: What about climate change? Is her conviction that we need to take action to reduce CO2 emissions one of her “radical” points of view that upsets Daines?

WILKINSON:  As co-chair of House Natural Resources Committee, she gave climate change several hearings. She trusts in the science of climate change, which means she is persuaded by expert opinion that burning of fossil fuels is warming the planet, which isn't good for a water-challenged region like the West. i know that, in New Mexico, she has become conversant and articulate about the economic challenges facing rural people and the importance of them being good stewards. She also has been an advocate for insuring that citizens have access to public lands. If that's radical, as Sen. Daines says, then what isn't radical?

SADLER: Behind the scenes out here [in Washington] there are critics on the right side of the aisle who label Haaland a socialist and say she doesn't understand how the free enterprise system— call it capitalism—works.

WILKINSON: Again, I don't know what her worldview is but it's a common refrain to label anyone who doesn't see the business world the same way as you do to be either a socialist or communist. In reality, we are a socialistic nation when you consider social security, medicare, medicaid, federal disaster relief, federal aid to states in the rural West, tax breaks to industries and the whole array of subsidies available to those who grow food. I'm not saying those things are good or bad; readers can decide but often I've found that when people throw around words like "socialism" it's often with little reflection on how they are beneficiaries every day of a system that has socialistic aspects built into it.  Haaland’s critics have also claimed she isn’t “a patriot.” Her father was a 30-year combat veteran, her mother served in the Navy and she’s been an advocate for military families and veterans with health issues.

SADLER: For those who might claim Mountain Journal will, if Rep. Haaland is confirmed, give her a free pass from scrutiny, would do you say?

WILKINSON: Our mission is to elevate ecological awareness among our readers. Where there is a fact-based foundation for discussing the intersections of ecology and economy, natural history and human culture, we think it leads to better outcomes for regions like Greater Yellowstone and what remains of the still-wild West. Whether you have an R or D  political affiliation doesn't mean you'll be getting a free pass to not speak the truth. We’re looking forward to having a conversation with her. We hope Sens. Daines, Lummis and Barrasso will give us an interview, too. 


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