Letters from the West

Put Interior’s Western HQ in Boise. Our NIFC is the model for federal collaboration

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson he wants to move the Bureau of Land Management headquarters out of Washington, D.C., into the West.

Why stop there? Why not move the entire Department of Interior to the region where most of its management takes place?

Zinke’s BLM discussion centered on Denver, but Boise also should be on his radar.

This is the home of the National Interagency Fire Center, the government organization that basically invented breaking down agency barriers to coordinate wildland firefighting nationwide. Imagine building on that pioneering work as a model throughout the western land agencies.

Cities like Denver and Salt Lake are bigger and today have better air service (that would change if we had thousands of Interior employees based here). But if Donald Trump decides to move Interior or some of its agencies West, Boise’s location on the southern edge of the Northern Rockies, on the northwest edge of the Great Basin and in the heart of the Pacific Northwest make it ideal.

Simpson told a full-house crowd Tuesday at the Andrus Center for Public Policy conference, “Why Public Lands Matter,” that Zinke said the Trump administration is looking at grander ideas like reorganizing the federal land, water and wildlife agencies that today fall under Interior, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce.

That’s a tall task. Harold Ickes, Interior secretary under Franklin Roosevelt, attempted to create a new department of conservation in the 1930s and move the Forest Service from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Interior agencies over in 1937. He failed, in part, because Gifford Pinchot, who helped Theodore Roosevelt create the Forest Service in 1905, led a political campaign against it.

Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus tried again in 1979, while serving as Jimmy Carter’s Interior secretary, proposing a federal Department of Natural Resources that would combine the Interior agencies with the Forest Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from Commerce. His argument at the time was that it created more orderly decisions.

But the Forest Service likes the independent autonomy it has at Agriculture, and its supporters once again won what has largely been a turf war.

How successful Zinke’s task goes likely depends on whether it falls under the purview of the Jared Kushner’s new “office of innovation” or Steve Bannon’s “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

The goal of Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, is to reorganize government so it operates like a great American company. That may not be a realistic model, but it does offer hope of finding the obvious potential efficiencies out there. How ridiculous is it, after all, that NOAA Fisheries is in the Department of Commerce when many of its tasks overlap with Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service? That makes sense only to the bureaucrats.

Then there is wildfire. The length and ferocity of wildfires has grown dramatically in the past 25 years, forcing all land management agencies to shift priorities from management to firefighting. The hardest hit has been the Forest Service, where wildfire-suppression costs burn up an increasing share of the agency’s overall budget — from 16 percent in 1995 to 52 percent in 2015.

The Forest Service’s firefighting staff has grown from 5,700 in 1998 to more than 12,000 last year. Meanwhile, non-firefighting staff has dropped by 39 percent — from 18,000 employees in 1998 to fewer than 11,000 in 2015.

Like it or not, Kushner’s office of innovation won’t be able to ignore the effects of climate change that are the driving force of this growing wildfire challenge. And they will need all of the agencies’ top scientists working together to lay the foundation on which reorganization can succeed.

Few ideas are better than moving the people who are in charge of managing 600 million acres of public forests, parks, rangelands, wildlife refuges and Indian trust relationships closer to the people and the land they steward. In a time where regional collaboration is emerging to replace central control as the mode of governing, it makes sense to put the land, water, fish and wildlife the agencies in the thick of things.

The recent announcement of a deal between Idaho Power and the Conservation Lands Foundation to run the Gateway West Transmission Line through the Morley Nelson-Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area next to existing power lines is a perfect example.

Twice local BLM leaders developed the compromise route, with wide support among environmental groups, local officials and industry. BLM officials in Washington erroneously believed the burned-over, cheatgrass-infested conservation area was somehow “pristine.” Anyone actually here on the ground could see that putting one set of transmission lines next to an existing line makes the most sense, economically and environmentally.

That D.C. decision would not have emerged if BLM headquarters been in Boise.

I suspect if the Trump administration were to make such a move, many of the interest groups that work with the federal agencies would move their staffs west as well.

The palatial office Ickes built for himself in the Interior building in Washington can still be used when the secretary goes there for cabinet meetings or to testify to Congress. All of the agencies will still need Washington staff to interact with Congress and other departments on budgets and other business.

In the age of Twitter and social media, the case for moving the federal managers and staff out on the ground is stronger than ever. If Zinke were to consult predecessors like Andrus and Dirk Kempthorne, another former Idaho governor, I bet they’d tell him the same.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker