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What Does Pres. Biden's Sec. Of Interior Nominee Mean For Nevada? John L. Smith Explains

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(Jim Watson/Pool Photo via AP, File)
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In this Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, file photo, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., listens during the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on her nomination to be Interior secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

President Joe Biden nominated Rep. Deb Haaland, D-NM., to lead the Interior Department.

The Department of the Interior manages a majority of the land in Nevada through the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies. 

Contributor John L. Smith said that Haaland is from the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, which is about 50 miles outside of Albuquerque. Haadland quips that she's a 35th generation New Mexican. 

“She’s risen through the political ranks to this really rather amazing historical moment to become the next secretary of the interior,” Smith said.

Smith said that while Indian Affairs is part of the Department of the Interior it has long been either neglected or mismanaged. Haaland's nomination could change that.

“I think having someone like Deb Haaland in that position is a signal that those issues are being taken seriously and the Biden administration by making that nomination, it wasn’t the easiest road to go on, I think it reminds people that there are new days in our country, and this is one of them,” he said.

Smith said having a Native American in a cabinet-level position is a point of great pride for indigenous people in Nevada and around the country.

“I think this as to be a great time for the sovereign nations to see a person who looks like them in a position of real leadership inside Interior,” he said.

Smith said the story of Native American tribes is a complex one, but it is mostly a story of encroachment into their land and their culture.

“I think her presence will certainly give them a reason to hope for better treatment and protections,” he said.

While having Haadland as head of DOI will bring a new voice to the table for indigenous people, there are plenty of people who are not happy with her nomination.

The oil and gas industry, in particular, disappointed with the choice, Smith said.

“She has a history of criticizing the oil and gas industry for its environmental challenges and some of the destruction it's created,” he said.

Haadland was part of the Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access oil pipeline in North Dakota. That branded her as 'radical' in the eyes of the gas and oil industry and its acolytes in Congress, Smith said.

During her confirmation hearing, Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto had an interesting exchange with Haaland about her opinions on the environment.

Smiths said that while Cortez Masto, a fellow Democrat, has an interest in seeing Haaland being confirmed, she also represents a state with major mining interests.

Haaland has, in the past, come out against hard rock mining.  

“Interestingly, Haaland really tempered her rhetoric and said that she planned to be in the mainstream, whether its oil and gas interests or mining interest," Smith said, "I think that gave a lot of relief to people who have real concerns about balancing the interest of the environment with the interests of business and industry, especially in a time of recession.”

Besides the extractive industries of oil, gas and mining, the Department of Interior also manages public land used by ranchers through the Bureau of Land Management.

Smith said the relationship between the BLM and ranchers has been rocky at times. The biggest example of that was the standoff between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and federal agents in 2014. 

“These new set of eyes and a kind of new sheriff will be a different experience than some folks in the ranching community were hoping for, which is that benign neglect that they traditionally sought from the federal government,” he said.

During the Trump administration, the bulk of the BLM staff was moved from Washington, D.C. to Grand Junction, Colorado. The idea, according to the administration, was to bring the people in charge closer to the people and land they oversee. 

Critics, however, pointed out it was really just a way to gut the agency of career experts, something that Smith said was clearly the motive. 

Now that there is a new administration in the White House and a new head of the Interior, there are questions about whether that decision will be reversed.

“It’s one of those things that folks in the environmental community and in the ranching community are both looking at with some interest,” he said.

Haaland said she would visit Grand Junction and visit the issue of moving the headquarters back to D.C. 

John L. Smith, contributor

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Kristen Kidman is the senior producer at KNPR’s State of Nevada and is proud to be from Las Vegas.