Embracing a New Era—with a New Secretary of the Interior

AprilIt’s a fresh slate with desert blooms, Covid-19 vaccines, and Deb Haaland’s first full month as the Secretary of the Interior. There’s a lot to look forward to! 

Haaland’s election is a historic moment. She is a member of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico and is also the first Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history. But she’s not new to politics—in 2018 she was one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress (the other was Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation from Kansas).

Secretary Deb Haaland in a bright blue dress with a rainbow-striped skirt swearing into her position next to Vice President Kamala Harris.

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of the Interior


It’s also more than historic. It’s a sign of a new era, one in which the U.S. Department of the Interior—the 171-year-old agency with an atrocious history of dislocation and genocide of Native Americans and a continued attack on Native American lands and treaties—will be led by an Indigenous woman. 

The Interior Department (DOI) conserves and manages the Nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage for the benefit and enjoyment of the American people, provides scientific and other information about natural resources and natural hazards to address societal challenges and create opportunities for the American people, and honors the Nation’s trust responsibilities or special commitments to [1.9 million] American Indians, Alaska Natives, and affiliated island communities to help them prosper.  

So what does this mean for conservation and the program work we do at Sky Island Alliance? The DOI is responsible for around 500 million acres of public lands, coastal waters, dams, reservoirs, and the protection of thousands of endangered species, so the short answer is—a lot. 

In her first few weeks, Haaland has committed to a shared vision outlined by President Joe Biden to tackle the climate crisis with a clean energy future. Haaland has met with Secretaries of the Energy, Commerce, and Transportation Departments to advance renewable energy development, including aggressive expansion of offshore wind. She’s leading the 30×30 effort, a conservation plan to protect 30% of land and ocean in the US by 2030. This week, Haaland will visit Southern Utah to review the boundaries for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, which were reduced by more than 2 million acres in 2017 by Trump through the Antiquities Act. 

We also hope to see Haaland work to reverse the damage done by the Trump administration in weakening the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which we’ve observed along the U.S.-Mexico border as part of our Border Wildlife Study 

What does this new era mean for a country grappling with a history of oppression, marginalization, and systemic inequalities? Haaland is committed to being a long road to repair a legacy of broken treaties between the federal government and Tribes. She’s been a champion of environmental justice in Congress, and pledges to continue to support affected communities. 

But it’s not just environmental work. On April 1, Haaland announced the creation of the Missing & Murdered Unit (MMU) within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to investigate missing and murdered Native Americans. This work contributes to the 2019 task force Operation Lady Justice to amplify attention to murdered Native American women, who are victims of murder over 10 times the national average. 

“A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of InteriorGrowing up in my mother’s Pueblo household made me fierce. I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land, Haaland posted on her Twitter account in December.

A month where we can all benefit from an Indigenous, femaleled DOI is something to celebrate. We can’t wait to see what’s next.