Haaland touts Indigenous conservation work in first year as Home Secretary | Local News
On Wednesday, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland gave a glowing review of her first year in office, touting her agency’s unprecedented actions to help Indigenous peoples and conservation efforts tied to the administration’s broader environmental policies. Biden.
Haaland, the first Native woman to serve as interior secretary, said her heritage in New Mexico was central to her policy-making, whether offering aid to the country India, to combat climate change or to help regions hit by drought.
“I bring my New Mexico roots to work every day,” Haaland told reporters on a conference call. “Where I’m from, I’m no stranger to water scarcity, wildfire risk and dependence on the land.”
Some of the achievements she highlighted, such as the expansion of tribal land protections, have drawn criticism from the fossil fuel, mining and timber industries, which see increased restrictions on extraction as a division into vital commercial activities.
Haaland’s first year included launching an investigation into the deaths of Indigenous children in boarding schools set up to assimilate them. She described the initiative in June and said Wednesday that a progress report would be expected in the coming month.
Boarding school work will include compiling and reviewing records to identify former schools, locating known and possible burial sites at or near those schools, and uncovering students’ names and tribal affiliations, Haaland said.
She also pointed to her recent decision to designate “squaw” as a derogatory word and to replace the term on geographic features of public, private and tribal lands.
Haaland credited the White House for conservation measures she strongly supported that benefited Indian Country, such as restoring Bears Ears National Monument to its former size and deciding to ban federal leasing of oil and of gas within a 10 mile area around the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Last year, the White House hosted the first Tribal Nations Summit since 2016. Out of this conference came commitments that are being implemented, such as increased engagement with tribal leaders, protection of sacred sites and efforts to restore indigenous languages, Haaland said.
“It’s been a great first year in the Biden-Harris administration — for Indian Country in particular,” Haaland said. “There are incredible moments that will be part of our collective memory for generations to come.”
Haaland said his agency is assisting President Joe Biden’s broader efforts.
One is the Infrastructure Act that funnels billions of dollars to states to improve bridges, roads, broadband capacity and water systems, she said.
Another is the president’s “America the Beautiful” initiative which calls for restoring and protecting 30% of the nation’s public land and water by 2030, Haaland said.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham followed suit with an executive order to set aside 30% of public land for conservation, with an additional 20% to be used as climate stabilization zones.
Haaland said the “30 by 30” initiative is more than a number.
“It builds on the best conservation tradition in the country,” Haaland said.
Agency teams are working with local, state and tribal leaders as well as herders, farmers and rural community groups to fulfill this mission, she said. Haaland was joined on the conference call by fellow New Mexican Tanya Trujillo, assistant secretary for water and science at the Department of the Interior. Trujillo outlined investments in water infrastructure that she says will help build the resilience of the system and ensure there is enough for the natural environment that depends on it.
An Indigenous advocate applauded Haaland’s work.
“In her first year, she is making progress and I think she is delivering on her promise to Indigenous communities as best she can,” said Corrine Sanchez, chief executive of Tewa Women United.
As the first Indigenous woman to hold a cabinet post, Haaland needed to be given more scrutiny, Sanchez said, because it always happens to those who break down barriers. “She’s definitely had a tough climb to get to where she is and to be able to implement what she wants to implement,” Sanchez said. “I think she was graceful under fire.”
Bringing abuse at boarding schools to light is “huge,” Sanchez said. “It’s such a big part of the history of this country.”
One of Haaland’s strengths has been her ability to garner support from various agencies who view her as a listener and someone who genuinely cares about what they think, said Charles Wilkinson, a professor of Indian law at the University of Colorado.
Haaland, a staunch Bears Ears advocate, was likely a strong and influential voice in encouraging Biden to restore the monument to its original size, Wilkinson said.
“She was very constructive,” Wilkinson said. “And for traditional reasons, cultural reasons, his love of the land.”
An environmental group gave him high marks for supporting the Chaco buffer zone, helping Biden protect 30% of the country’s public lands by 2030 and meeting with tribes across the country to get their input. “Going forward, we would like to see more formal protections for domestically managed federal lands,” New Mexico Wild spokesperson Joey Keefe wrote in an email. “We are confident that Secretary Haaland will continue to be a good ally in this effort.”
Haaland said she and the president are trying to persuade fossil fuel companies to use their existing permits to drill more oil in the face of rising gasoline prices.
There are 4,355 oil and gas licenses in New Mexico waiting to be used, Haaland said.
Looking ahead, she said, her agency will work to reform the oil and gas programs, which she called “broken”.
“Every piece of public land belongs to every American, and it’s our job to make sure we get a fair return, protecting the environment…for all Americans,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.