In Advance of Haaland Confirmation, DOI Overhauls Its Priorities

The DOI changed its stated priorities substantially early in the Biden administration. The image on the left shows its “Our Priorities” webpage on January 20, 2021, and the image on the right shows the same webpage on February 28, 2021.

Welcome! This post is part of the EDGI Website Monitoring Team’s “Highlights from the Change Log” blog series. The purpose of this series is to highlight interesting changes we have observed in the language used on, or access to, federal websites. We want to share these changes to encourage public engagement with and discussion of their significance, as well as understanding of the ephemeral nature of website information. Today’s change occurred between January 20 and February 28, 2021, on the Department of the Interior’s “Our Priorities” webpage.

What happened:

Between January 20 and February 28, 2021, the Department of the Interior (DOI) overhauled its stated priorities. The DOI’s priorities, as listed on its “Our Priorities” webpage, had been altered dramatically under the Trump administration, ultimately enumerating 10 priorities:

  1. Create a conservation stewardship legacy second only to Teddy Roosevelt.
  2. Sustainably develop our energy and natural resources.
  3. Restore trust and be a good neighbor.
  4. Ensure tribal sovereignty means something.
  5. Increase revenues to support the Department and national interests.
  6. Protect our people and the border.
  7. Strike a regulatory balance.
  8. Modernize our infrastructure.
  9. Reorganize the Department for the next 100 years.
  10. Achieve our goals and lead our team forward.

In the first month of the Biden administration, the DOI removed this list and replaced it with statements about responsibilities for public land stewardship, environmental protection, environmental justice, and relationships with tribal nations, and provided a list of these more specific priorities: 

  • Identifying steps to accelerate responsible development of renewable energy on public lands and waters. We are investing in climate research and environmental innovation to incentivize the rapid deployment of clean energy solutions, while reviewing existing programs to restore balance on America’s public lands and waters to benefit current and future generations.
  • Strengthening the government-to-government relationship with sovereign Tribal nations. We understand that tribal sovereignty and self-governance, as well as honoring the federal trust responsibility to Tribal Nations, must be the cornerstones of federal Indian policy.
  • Making investments to support the Administration’s goal of creating millions of family-supporting and union jobs. This includes establishing a new Climate Conservation Corps Initiative to put a new generation of Americans to work conserving and restoring public lands and waters, increasing reforestation, increasing carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protecting biodiversity, improving access to recreation, and addressing the changing climate.
  • Working to conserve at least 30% each of our lands and waters by the year 2030. We will work to protect biodiversity, slow extinction rates and help leverage natural climate solutions by conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030. This relies on support for local, state, private, and tribally-led nature conservation and restoration efforts that are underway across America.
  • Centering equity and environmental justice. The impacts of the multiple crises in the United States are not evenly distributed in our society. Communities of color, low-income families, and rural and indigenous communities have long suffered disproportionate and cumulative harm from air pollution, water pollution, and toxic sites. At every step of the way, Interior will engage diverse stakeholders across the country, as well as conduct formal consultation with Tribes in recognition of the U.S. government’s trust responsibilities.

Why we think it’s interesting:

This overhaul of DOI priorities is a great stride forward. It is more than a return to Obama-era priorities: It introduces a new chapter with DOI indicating it will center justice and center climate change in a new way. 

This is the first time DOI’s priorities have included environmental justice and racial equity. DOI had never clearly called out disparities faced by Indigenous communities, and often used hollow language regarding responsibilities toward and relationships with tribal nations. For example, we are glad to see the meager and meaningless statement “ensure tribal sovereignty means something” removed, hopefully never to return. 

The other major shift with the list of priorities is the emphasis on climate change. While climate change had been listed as one of the pillars of the “America’s Great Outdoors” priority under the Obama administration, that was the only place the phrase or the concept was present in DOI’s priorities. Then it was entirely removed under the Trump administration. Now, under the Biden administration, climate change is mentioned under three of the five priorities. Clean energy development is clearly emphasized as well (though with a nod to “existing programs,” which are overwhelmingly oil and gas extraction). 

Overall, the substantive remaking of DOI’s priorities is promising. Beyond this, we are excited to see the justice-oriented trails DOI will blaze under the leadership of Deb Haaland, a member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, who was confirmed by the Senate yesterday to be the first Indigenous secretary of the Interior and the first Native American to serve in a cabinet position. DOI is poised to repair and reverse prior actions taken under the Trump administration to reinstate wildlife conservation rules, expand solar and wind power on public lands, and respond to the needs of Indigenous peoples who have historically been disenfranchised and mistreated by the DOI and the US government and are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic at present.