How to Dismantle the Interior Department

Nelson Study on Reducing Federal Overreach

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The Department of the Interior was created in 1849 as the new “Home Department” covering much of domestic affairs.  Today, Interior is often thought of as the “Department of the West.”  In total, the Interior Department has jurisdiction over approximately 450 million acres of public lands—20 percent of the land area of the United States.  It has about 77,000 full-time employees. In fiscal 1994, the total operating budget of the Interior Department was $7.6 billion. 

Much of the Interior Department was created as a part of the progressive-era plan for American government.  The progressive vision sought rational and efficient management, to be achieved through the systematic application of science to the problems of American society.  This vision of scientific management is no longer an adequate guide for American government.  Indeed, our task today is to find a new guiding vision and to reshape American governing institutions accordingly.

Many features of the Interior Department’s responsibilities and organization no longer make sense. In particular, the Department is a result of the major overreaching of the federal role that took place this century.  Interior serves as, in effect, a planning and zoning board for large areas of the rural West.  The Interior Department has ended up doing many things that are properly state and local responsibilities; could be better done in the private sector; or are not appropriate to government at any level.

This paper proposes a radical reorganization of the Interior Department and its functions.  The changes proposed would cumulatively have the effect of dismantling much of the Interior Department.  The basis for this reorganization lies in four common sense principles:

1. Activities that can reasonably be carried out in the private sector and should be done privately

2. Activities that mostly involve state and local concerns should be administered by state and local governments.

3. The Federal government should limit its role to activities and concerns that involve major Federal interests and responsibilities.

4. Administrative organization at the Federal level should place similar functions in the same agency.

Applying these principles to the Department of the Interior would produce dramatic changes.  The result would be to abolish altogether six of the current ten agencies located within the Department of the Interior—the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Geological Survey, National Biological Service, Minerals Management Service and Bureau of Mines.  Three other agencies, the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs, would be sharply reduced in size.  The majority of their current responsibilities—perhaps 75 percent—would be transferred to state governments, to tribes, and to private groups.  The responsibilities of the Office of Surface Mining would be transferred to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Those responsibilities still remaining at the Interior Department would largely consist of management of lands retained in federal possession for reasons of their geology, history, rare wildlife or other features of special national significance.  The various existing parts of the Interior Department now responsible for these lands could be consolidated into one overall land management agency.

It is difficult to predict the final cost savings that would result for the federal government from this plan.  A reasonable estimate, however, is that approximately 50 percent of the current Interior Department budget, or $3.8 billion annually, would eventually be saved at the federal level, if all this paper’s recommendations were adopted.