Sound Stories. Sound Voices.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
You are on the KUOW archive site. Click here to go to our current site.
KUOW's environment beat brings you stories on the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, alternative energy, the health of the Puget Sound, coal transportation and more. We're also partnered with several stations across the Northwest to bring you environmental news via EarthFix.

Cuts to tribes, lands would be ‘devastating,’ former Interior secretary says

KUOW Photo/Ashley Ahearn
Then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at Mount Rainier National Park in 2014

The agency that manages Mount Rainier, North Cascades and Olympic national parks will see big budget cuts, if the Trump administration has its way.

The U.S. Department of the Interior is the nation’s largest manager of public lands, overseeing about a fifth of America. Here in Washington state, it manages 24 national wildlife refuges and two national monuments in addition to the three major national parks.

It also handles federal relations with Native Americans and regulates energy production on land and at sea.

“Interior touches lives of more Americans than any other department,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told a U.S. Senate committee in June. “I am the steward of our nation’s greatest treasures, and I take that responsibility very seriously,” the former Navy Seal and one-term Congressman from Montana said.

Zinke went to Congress last month to present a $1.6 billion, or 13 percent, budget cut for the Interior Department.

It would mean 4,000, or 8 percent, fewer jobs for park rangers, scientists and regulators there.

Mount Rainier and North Cascades national parks would each lose about $900,000, according to Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell.

“We found savings by reducing federal land acquisition, eliminating redundant programs, by allowing states, local communities and private partners to take the lead on some others,” Zinke testified. “At the end of the day, this is what a balanced budget looks like.”

Zinke said the Interior Department is top-heavy and can carry out its core missions with less money.

“Coming in and slashing and suggesting that there is a mountain of waste, fraud and abuse you can tap into is nonsense,” Zinke’s predecessor, Sally Jewell of Seattle, said in an interview with KUOW. “The cuts that have been proposed would be devastating to the mission of the Department of the Interior.”

Jewell said the cuts would reduce public access to national parks, national wildlife refuges and other public lands.

“You will see sensitive areas closed or access limited. You'll see services reduced,” she said. “You'll see hours reduced in order to deal with this kind of a cut.”

Tribal cuts

Beyond outdoor recreation and the jobs it supports, Jewell and others said the cutbacks could run afoul of laws or even treaties.

“When our forefathers signed our treaties, it protected our rights to hunt, fish and gather perpetually,” Justin Parker, head of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and a member of the Makah Tribe, said.

Parker said tribal rights to land and resources have been hurt by lots of things, including climate change.

“We’re losing our lands out on the coast,” he said.

This time, it’s not the United States taking away their lands, at least not directly: It’s the ocean. 

Parker said the Hoh, Quileute and Quinault tribes are already considering fleeing to higher ground because of rising seas generated by warmer ocean waters, in turn fueled primarily by industrial nations’ carbon dioxide emissions.

The Trump budget calls for wide-ranging cuts at the Bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education, which provide social services and education for 567 officially recognized tribes.

The budget would eliminate BIA’s program that helps tribes deal with an already-changing climate.

In recent weeks, the program’s name was changed from “Tribal Climate Resilience Program” to “Tribal Resilience Program,” Buzzfeed News reported, and references to climate change were removed from the BIA website.

“That’s going to be hugely important that we see these funds restored,” Parker said.

“These are all part of our trust and treaty obligations as the US federal government to Native American tribes, who gave up so much so that the rest of us could have what we have,” Jewell said.

From REI to D.C. to UW

Before she ran the Interior Department, Jewell ran the outdoor retailer REI. She said efforts to save money by making government more businesslike often don’t work.

“Government isn't set up to be efficient,” Jewell said. “It's actually set up to take an awful lot of public input and listen to people in a variety of opinions. You also are required to follow the law, of course. That means taking in the best available science, and that takes time to do right.”

Jewell said proposals to reduce the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s spending on studying and saving endangered species would end up costing taxpayers money.

“If they get scaled back, it means that a lot more money will be spent by the federal government on a very, very inefficient part of our democracy, and that is in the courts because they will get sued, and they will lose,” she said.

Jewell is now a fellow at the University of Washington's College of the Environment.

Decisions on spending are up to Congress, not the executive branch.

Zinke testified that the proposed cuts would help taxpayers without preventing Interior from doing its job. He said he’d work with Congress to come up with a budget that “reflects a great nation.” 

John Ryan loves getting tips and documents. He can be reached at or on the encrypted Signal or WhatsApp apps at 1-401-405-1206 (whistleblowers, never do so from a work or government device, account or location). For greatest security, use KUOW's SecureDrop portal. Snail mail is also a safe way to reach him confidentially: KUOW, 4518 University Way NE #310, Seattle, WA 98105. Don't put your return address on the outside.

Year started with KUOW: 2009