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Terry Tempest Williams

Break the Cycle: Bring Interior Back to its Roots

Every four years those of us living in the Intermountain West –a largely federal landscape filled with vast potential and spectacular resources — find ourselves wondering who will be appointed as our new landlord, and why.

Past Secretaries of the Interior have been assigned an acutely partisan and political role, typically delivered as a reward to a former Governor or loyal ideologue. This triggers a vicious cycle. A Dirk Kempthorne or Gale Norton sets out to undo the work of a Bruce Babbitt, who reversed James Watt’s extremes, who in turn tried to roll back the legacy of Cecil Andrus. The next appointment to Interior can continue to whipsaw the West, offering more of the same, or provide it with a deep-rooted, nonpartisan voice of pragmatism and stability.

Here in the American West, there is no more respected conservation leader than Utah writer and natural historian, Terry Tempest Williams.

Short-sighted critics might question how an eloquent writer and speaker can lead a sprawling bureaucracy. After all, Interior’s sheer size — with 67,000 employees and 2,400 locations — necessitates that a number of able undersecretaries, with the assistance of a vast network of 236,000 volunteers, help administer the Department.

But the underlying reality is that the West has always been a geography inspired by hope and dreams, and Interior has from the beginning been led, in the truest sense, by charismatic and compelling artists and poets. The appointment of Williams could provide an authentic and expansive new guiding vision, dramatically inspiring the current state of demoralized employees and volunteers, and, more importantly, giving them direction.

In an administration of real change — a re-imagining of America’s potential in the world — she would be the natural choice. Williams fits squarely in the tradition of other Interior Department writers and thinkers, from Walt Whitman to John Wesley Powell to Bob Marshall to Rachel Carson to Wallace Stegner.

Her lineage in the American conservation movement is impeccable, and she is as visionary as she is passionate and eloquent. A native of Utah and a Mormon, the daughter, sister and niece of Western oilfield workers (though a defender of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), and a survivor of the downwind atomic bomb tests of the 1950s, Williams possesses a land- and community-based experience commensurate with her intellect. Better still, she knows the West deeply, profoundly and intimately.

Dividing time between her beloved Utah and Wyoming, where she lives at the edge of Grand Teton National Park, Williams is an obvious choice to help give the American West a voice at the Cabinet level in the evolving dialogue about how we care for—and restore and repair — not just our Western, but all public, lands in a restoration economy. Our national parks’ budgets, and the biological integrity of the systems we seek to protect, are by many accounts in free-fall.

It’s not just the natural systems of our parks that are in need of repair. The Department of Interior has misplaced and misappropriated billions of dollars due to Indian tribes, in mismanagement by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which operates under the jurisdiction of Interior. Williams has worked extensively with native people in the West and particularly the Southwest, and here appointment would be a clear and dramatic statement to the tribes that the administration intends to begin the long and arduous task of seeking to regain that much-abused trust that has been painful centuries in the making.

The new populism of the West — in places such as Colorado and New Mexico where the Udalls are re-ascending, in Montana where Governor Brian Schweitzer is forging a new brand of Democrat, and in Harry Reid’s Nevada, and Bill Richardson’s New Mexico—is a significant portion of Obama’s success, and an important part of the American character, deserving of voice. It’s a lot to expect of one person, one appointment, but Williams has the fortitude, passion, experience and intellect to help deliver this new voice, with a dignity and integrity representative of the hopes and dreams many Americans hold for this new administration seeking to deliver promised change on the ground.

Author and conservationist Rick Bass lives in Missoula, Montana.

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  1. Terry Tempest Teapot?
    The woman who groks on dessicated frogs and gets a bit too passionate with campfires? Like I’ve said before, Rick, you’re a fantasist at heart, and this particular fantasy takes the lead.

  2. I remember back during the Carter administration while I was working for the Forest Service,word came down that Jimmy was going to merge the Forest Service with Interior creating a new Dept. of Natural Resources. I was excited because I had worked for Interior and I thought we could take the best of both agencies and discard the worst resulting in improved natural resource management. Alas, powerful vested interests intervened and it never came to pass.

  3. There’s no fantasy, Dave Skinner, coming from Rick Bass and Terry Tempest Williams. Both of them write from the heart and though it may not resonate with you, it does with millions of Americans. The only fantasy being created is the one based on the premise that inciting hatred, trying to constantly invent enemies within our own communities, and being angry all the time, somehow leads to a better America and a better West. It doesn’t. Regardless of whether one venerates the past or not, we are never going to go back. Just once, I’d like to hear Dave Skinner write a Rick Bass or Terry Tempest Willliams -esque piece about the things that actually leave you inspired to live in the West; not things that rile you up such as trying to count rhetorical coup on environmentalists, but the things that give you the greatest joy in being outdoors. Why stay in Montana if you’re perpetually unhappy?

  4. Lovely idea, but I don’t see it ever happening.

  5. It’s funny. I’ve received two private postings from people about Rick’s piece, above, and my response to it. Perhaps I was a bit too ambiguous in my response to Dave Skinner’s posting on Rick’s posting and therefore left myself open for misinterpretation. Mine was not an endorsement of Terry Tempest Williams for Interior Secretary. Obviously, neither would she be interested in holding a highly contentious political/bureaucratic post like Interior Secretary, nor would she be good at it. Most people who hold the position aren’t, in the end. They find it difficult, if not impossible, to act on big, virtuous ideas because of entrenchment. And it eats them alive. Rick’s point, if I interpret it right, is that the Interior needs to depart from its usual playbook that has lead only to pendulum swings and lack of vision. A better role for Terry Tempest Williams would be poet laureate/writer in residence for America’s public land agencies to help restore the morale of our land agency civil servants in government uniform. Her greatest gift is as inspirer, not administrator or politico.

  6. Thanks for this Bass. I’ve read both you and Williams for many years now. The American West has produced some of the finest writing in the world and both of you are amongst our very best. I thank you both for your eloquent wisdom and big strong hearts.
    On a personal note, I met Ms. Williams when she came to CSU to speak in the early 1990’s. At the time, my mom was struggling with the cancer that would eventually take her from our family and throw our hearts upon the ground. I told her about my mom and Terry’s tender words, warm embrace, and piercing brave look brought me a comfort that holds me up to this day. I love Terry Tempest Williams for that as well as her soul stirring words. She is a good and honorable woman who has earned respect.
    Michael Bartley

  7. Todd,
    I am sure you would be disappointed in anything I wrote along those lines. The short version is, the West is better than anyplace else, not just the landscape. More important to me are the people who inhabit it, characters far fuller than anything Rick or Terry could ever gin up.

    I’ve got an old, pre-computer-age essay about Bob Dole that comes about as close to the crux of the matter…one cannot adequately express certain things with words. One always comes up short. Some fundamentally understand this, some don’t.

    That’s why I find Rick’s writings so off, Terry as well. I have read too much of their stuff for my own good. That includes TTW’s Desert Quartet — subtitled “An Erotic Landscape.”
    I went down to the liberry and re-checked it out, and I’m thinking about maybe quoting some eco-porn, some really strange material. I’m sure a shrink would be able to read the religious and sexual subtexts quite clearly.
    Fine, if Terry wants to be some kind of priestess in a wild temple, then peachy for her. If her readers like her utterances, groovy for them.
    But when all is said, stuff still needs done. The West needs rational policies. For Rick to suggest TTW become Secretary of Interior is therefore a complete nonstarter.
    As for her becoming “poetess laureate” or some such…my view is the West doesn’t need one. It speaks — silently — for itself. Too bad so many can’t hear.

  8. So Rick,
    Are you hitting on Terry?

  9. This piece contains essentially two ideas; one, that the partisan nature of national politics has whipsawed the Department of the Interior for decades, to no one’s benefit, and two, that Terry Tempest Williams would be a great choice to head up the department.

    The second idea is not to be taken seriously, as Mr. Wilkinson said above. Even if Williams was persuaded to give up writing to take the job, her lack of experience at managing a monstrous bureaucracy would virtually guarantee ineffectiveness. We need real leadership to bring about constructive action, and that requires someone with experience in the halls of power and in the government.

    But Bass’s first point deserves serious consideration. Given the long-standing tension between city and country in the U.S., and given Obama’s stated desire to reach out to the other side of the aisle in his administration, wouldn’t it be a breath of fresh air if he was to recruit a thoughtful Republican to mend fences and create consensus at the Department of the Interior?

    Off the top of my head, I’m not sure who that person would be — probably a Westerner and a moderate with a gift for listening and persuasion. But the idea of looking for a thoughtful nonpartisan to end the wrangling at Interior is brilliant…Barack, are you listening?