Pressure builds on Biden to name Native American Deb Haaland as Interior leader

By Jennifer A. Dlouhy on 11/19/2020
U.S. Representative Debra Haaland (D - NM)
U.S. Representative Debra Haaland (D - NM)

(Bloomberg) --A campaign to pressure President-elect Joe Biden to put Representative Deb Haaland in charge of the Interior Department -- and make her the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history -- is gaining ground in Washington.

The effort, which involves lawmakers, tribal leaders and some environmentalists, also is making headway with Biden transition officials, according to three people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named discussing deliberations over personnel.

Haaland, who was just elected to her second term in the House, is a top contender for the post of Interior secretary along with retiring Senator Tom Udall, the people said. Both are Democrats from New Mexico.

Representative Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, just took himself out of the running, throwing his support behind Haaland for the post in a letter Monday to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Biden officials have been urged not to give serious weight to Senator Martin Heinrich, another Democrat from New Mexico, in part because of his decision to support current Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s confirmation last year, two of the people said.

‘Ruined’ Relationship

If tapped and confirmed for the role, Haaland, 59, would be the first Native American to serve as any cabinet secretary. As a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, a 7,700-member tribe west of Albuquerque, New Mexico, she became one of the first two Native American women in the House of Representatives when she was sworn in last year, alongside freshman Sharice Davids of Kansas.

“If selected, I would be honored to serve and support the Biden-Harris climate agenda, as well as help repair the government to government relationship with tribes that the Trump administration has ruined as the first Native American cabinet secretary in our nation’s history,” Haaland said in an emailed statement.

Haaland also highlighted the Interior Department’s role tackling climate change and preserving public lands. She has advocated greater federal government consultation with tribes, conservation of federal lands and federal-tribal collaboration to prevent violent crimes, partly in her role leading the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Lands.

Activists are appealing to Biden’s campaign commitment to elevate the voices of indigenous people, emphasizing that Native Americans are guardians of the land often overlooked in major environmental decisions. That role was vividly on display during months of protests of the Dakota Access oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in 2016.

Protecting the Land

“The entire world saw indigenous people trying to do the basic thing of protecting the land and the water they considered a sacred site for their ceremonies,” said Jane Kleeb, an anti-pipeline activist and the chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party who has encouraged Haaland’s selection. “The world changed in that moment, and I think that has impacted Democratic leaders.”

Where previous Interior secretaries have “given lip service to tribes on consultation in honoring treaty and sovereign rights,” Haaland would bring a commitment to change course, Kleeb said. “It would be a transformative moment -- not just in symbolism, but in the way that she views how we should be protecting that land.”

Biden transition spokesmen did not respond to a request for comment.

The Interior Department runs the national park system and oversees grazing, recreation, energy development and other activities on about a fifth of the U.S. Through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the department works directly with 578 federally recognized Native American tribes. The Interior Department also holds trust title to more than 56 million acres of lands for tribal nations.

“It is long past time that a Native American person serve as secretary of the interior,” and Haaland is “ready” for the role, more than 130 leaders of sovereign tribal nations said in a letter to Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. “Representative Haaland has championed the environment, helped lead efforts to address climate change and worked to improve the nation-to-nation relationship between our tribes and the United States -- all issues within the Department of the Interior’s responsibilities.”

Both Haaland and Udall have fought Trump administration efforts to unleash oil and gas development on public lands in the West. They also paired with Grijalva and 49 other lawmakers in a legal brief opposing eased limits on methane leaks from oil wells on federal lands.

Their views neatly align with Biden’s climate and environmental ambitions -- but other factors could be at play in Biden’s Interior secretary selection. That includes the makeup of the rest of his cabinet and the confirmability of his choices in the narrowly divided Senate. While Udall could benefit from his relationships with Senate colleagues, Haaland would not have the same advantage.

Udall, who served two terms in the Senate after a decade in the House and a stint as New Mexico’s attorney general, has championed a plan to protect at least 30% of U.S. land and ocean by 2030. He also has argued for enlisting federal lands in the fight against climate change -- using the territory as uninterrupted habitat for vulnerable species and a repository for carbon dioxide, instead of as a source of fossil fuels and the greenhouse gases they generate.

In an emailed statement, Udall praised both Haaland and Heinrich. “Like so many New Mexicans, I’m excited about the vision of the incoming Biden-Harris administration and I am honored to be considered for an opportunity to continue my public service,” he said.

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