Madame Secretary

This week New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland was confirmed as Secretary of the Interior. Haaland is the first indigenous person ever to lead a cabinet-level U.S. agency.

Photo: Deb Haaland for Congress

I’m hardly a policy wonk, but this is exciting news to me. 

According to her bio, “Deb Haaland is a 35th generation New Mexican who is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, and also has Jemez Pueblo heritage.”

Did you catch that?  35th generation

My son the history major explained that she traces her ancestors back to the collapse of Mesa Verde in the late 13th century, when her people moved out of Colorado and into New Mexico and became Pueblo.  

My husband the math guy offered this formula: 700 years divided by 20-year generations = 35 generations. 

It kind of puts my son’s fifth-generation Texan status in perspective.  

I surprise myself with this new interest in public land policy.  Part of it can be tied to the fact that I’m spending more time in nature.  

Several of my birding excursions have been to National Wildlife Refuges, which are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which falls under the Department of the Interior.

We also just bought a National Park Pass in anticipation of an upcoming road trip to southern Utah. The National Parks Service also falls under Haaland’s agency.

In addition to spending time outside, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the science and culture of land.  

Last spring, I made a conscious effort to read more Black and Native writers on the subjects I love to learn about: walking, birding, writing, and philosophy.

Lauret Savoy was the first one to really get into my head with her book, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. Expecting a wayfarer’s story of America, I was stunned at how much I didn’t know about the history of our land.

Then I read Tommy Orange’s novel, There There. Where Trace got my attention, There There got in all my feels with his account of modern urban Native Americans.  It shined a harsh light on my ignorance of American history and policies that continue to repress native lands and people.

Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague got me thinking about how quickly and thoroughly languages and cultures vanish when there is no one left to cultivate them.  

In Brading Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer tenderly planted words and ideas showing me the virtues of a pre-colonial economy and culture where people live in reciprocity with the land.  Such notions don’t easily bloom in my head

Through these and other readings, it’s finally clicking to me that land is as much about history, culture, and race as it is about scientific laws and systems. 

Aldo Leopold knew this:

“An understanding of ecology does not necessarily originate in courses bearing ecological labels; it is quite as likely to be labeled geography, botany, agronomy, history or economics.”

Aldo Leopold, Land Ethic

Having made my living in Houston (the Energy Capital of the World), I appreciate the tension over who heads the Department of Interior. Public lands are key for all kinds of oil and gas extraction and transportation operations. People worry that a new administration will shut it all down.

Here’s what Secretary Haaland said in her confirmation hearings: 

“There’s no question that fossil energy does and will continue to play a major role in America for years to come.  I know how important oil and gas revenue is to critical services.  But we must also recognize that the energy industry is innovating, and our climate challenge must be addressed.  Together we can work to position our nation and all of its people for success in the future.”

–Deb Haaland, Secretary of Interior

Big oil companies are, in fact, making some of the biggest and most innovative investments in green energy (Kristen Senz, Harvard Business School 16 February 2021.)

It’s hard for me to see how this will play out, in regards to public land use.

Robin Wall Kimmer has some ideas though. In an interview on NPR’s 1A podcast, she explained that the 480 million acres of public woodlands, wetlands, and grasslands can be managed to draw down carbon from the atmosphere. 

“(Haaland) has the opportunity to balance the climate change and fossil fuels questions by both supporting the natural processes of carbon sequestration in vegetation as well as beginning the just transition away from fossil fuels.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer

Maybe I’m just hearing what I want to hear, but it sounds hopeful to me. 

America has a long history of thinking about public lands as a platform for economic gain. It’s exciting to think there’s a new appetite for considering motives other than profit–such as recreation, restoration, and regeneration.  

Leopold had something to say about this when he wrote the Land Ethic 80 years ago: 

“Quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem.  Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient.  A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Aldo Leopold, Land Ethic

No one thinks that Haaland’s job will be easy.  But I am hopeful that she can start the dialogue that, in Kimmerer’s words, “really lifts up the ecological integrity on the lands.” 


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