At her swearing-in ceremony in March of 2021, Deb Haaland made history as the first Native Cabinet secretary, taking the oath of office in a rainbow, ribbon-trimmed skirt, moccasins, and a turquoise and silver belt. It was a bold proclamation of what would soon become a tidal shift in land management, one aimed at critical issues like racial equity, tribal inclusion, and increasing access to nature for millions of Americans.
Almost immediately, Haaland, who is a member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, got down to business, working to rebuild a mismanaged department left behind by the previous administration. She acted quickly to restore both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments, which had been slashed by 85 and 46 percent, respectively, under President Trump. She expanded the National Wildlife Refuge System with the addition of Montana’s Lost Trail Conservation Area. And she announced $61 million in funding to expand outdoor access in urban spaces. Perhaps most notably, Haaland hired directors for the BLM and the National Park Service, both of which had been without official leadership for several years.
Tracy Stone-Manning inherited a BLM in free fall, reeling from the loss of multiple veteran staff members who left the agency when the Trump administration relocated its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colorado, in 2019. Haaland returned the agency to D.C., where Stone-Manning has focused on expanding public access to BLM lands and aligning the agency’s multiple-use mandate with the Biden administration’s clean-energy goals. She is also reconsidering the midnight orders issued in the final weeks of the Trump administration that sought to open 28 million acres in Alaska to oil and gas development.
Using a Biden-era executive order and the Energy Act of 2020 as guidance, Stone-Manning wants to permit at least 25 gigawatts of solar, wind, and geothermal energy production on public land by 2025. Plus, she’s opening up previously inaccessible areas for recreation by supporting the Dingell Act Priority Access List Portal, which highlights 712 parcels of land (covering 3.5 million acres across 13 western states) that require better access. The plan will hopefully alleviate conflicts between private landowners and recreationists in high-use areas and consolidate spotty swaths of BLM acreage into contiguous blocks that are easier for the public to enjoy.
Meanwhile, Charles “Chuck” Sams III became the first tribal citizen to lead the Park Service, when he was sworn in on December 16, 2021. A member of the Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes, he is the first Senate-confirmed director of the Park Service in five years. So far he has designated Colorado’s Amache National Historic Site as a national park, appointed $2.1 million in grants to support the repatriation of tribal cultural items, and worked with affiliated tribes in Park Service units to further incorporate their narratives into visitor centers. In less than a year, he’s racked up a résumé of restorative justice wins—no small feat for a department often criticized for forcibly removing tribes from their ancestral homelands.
Sams has also proactively administered a massive infrastructure investment using the Great American Outdoors Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the Inflation Reduction Act. When monsoon rains and historic flooding took out roadways in Yellowstone earlier this year, Sams swiftly dispatched $50 million in emergency funding to the national park.
Both Haaland and Sams are shedding light on the relationship between Natives and public lands. The agencies they oversee needed revamping, and Indigenous people are now at the forefront of multiple new projects, like the Tribal Homelands Initiative, which will improve federal stewardship of land, waters, and wildlife by drawing on Indigenous knowledge and increasing co-management opportunities for tribes on federal lands. Haaland has also launched the Indian Youth Service Corps, aimed at providing education, employment, and training opportunities to Indigenous youth through conservation projects.
“As a U.S. citizen, I just feel proud and fortunate that we finally figured out how to have a member of a tribal community serving in the Cabinet of the president,” says Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation. “That’s long overdue, and I think her impact will be felt well beyond the Interior Department.”