The Department of the Interior is a sprawling federal agency that manages lands, wildlife and scientific research across the U.S. including through the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Geological Survey.
Although much of the agency’s real-estate is in the West, here in Maryland it also has an important presence, managing – for example – the Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore, the Assateague Island National Seashore, the Baltimore Washington Parkway, and the C & O Canal trail along the Potomac River.
For years, the agency’s motto read: “The Department of the Interior protects and manages the Nation's natural resources and cultural heritage; and provides scientific and other information about those resources.”
When President Trump took office and appointed former Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke to run the agency, they updated the motto to: “Our Mission: Protecting America's Great Outdoors and Powering Our Future.”
Zinke set about almost immediately to help the energy industry obtain more power over public lands by lifting an Obama-era ban on new coal mines on federal property, and lifting regulations for oil and gas companies that want to drill there.
“This is part of their mantra now of energy dominance,” said Kristen Brengel, a vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association. “And we’ve heard this both in meetings with the secretary and other staff at the interior department – that they are promoting energy dominance.”
During a press conference last week, President Trump announced that he is eliminating national monument protections from two million acres of federal lands at the Bears Ears wildlife area in Utah – regarded as sacred, by many Native Americans -- and Grand Staircase Escalane.
“The previous administration designated more than a half a billion acres of land and water including Bears Ears,” Trump said. “The results have been very sad and very predictable. Here and in other affected states, we have seen harmful and unnecessary restrictions on hunting, ranching, and responsible economic development.”
The administration asserted that the change – the largest rollback of U.S. land protections in at least a century -- had nothing to do with the energy industry, only the rights of local residents and the state government.
But then a Washington Post investigation revealed documents that showed, in fact, that a company called Energy Fuels Resources USA Inc. had been lobbying the administration to allow uranium mining among the Native American historical sites on the national monument.
“It could be pretty devastating,” said Dan Hartinger, a director at the Wilderness Society, one of the groups that sued to stop the rollback. “Uranium mining has a long history of water contamination and public health impacts, as well as environmental degradation.”
While the Trump Administration is pushing to cut taxes on corporations at the Department of the Interior, it is planning to dramatically raise entrance fees for Americans who want to visit national parks to $70 in many places—including the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
“That is a whopping amount of money for any family to pay to introduce their children to wildlife and the wonders of America’s public lands,” said Randi Spivak, a director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s particularly egregious when this administration is giving handouts to fossil fuel companies and other corporate polluters.”
These parks remain public lands, but now the public has to pay $70 just to see them.