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.