Zinke announces plans to overhaul Interior, create regions based on ecosystems

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tours the Lolo Peak fire incident command center in Florence last year, where he discussed his vision for the future of forest management. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke this week announced plans to reorganize the Interior Department by moving thousands of agency employees to new locations while dividing regions into system-based ecosystems that could see Montana split into two.

In a publicly released video message to the department’s 70,000 employees on Thursday, Zinke said his plans for reorganization would change the agency from its current state- and bureau-based system to one based on “ecosystems, watersheds and science.”

“This concept will allow Interior and our participating agencies to address concerns using a system-level approach to better manage important resources, such as watersheds, trail systems, infrastructure requirements, recreational access and wildlife corridors,” Zinke said.

Zinke said the change would enable agencies within the Interior Department to work more closely together on key management decisions.

Working together is nothing new, he added while noting the joint firefighting center in Boise, Idaho, and the agency’s shared offices in other locations.

“It’s important to maintain the traditions in uniform to different bureaus,” Zinke said. “But better integration at the ecosystem level, for such missions as NEPA, permits, habitats and recreation, is what we need to do to be better stewards in the next century.”

This map, released by E&E News, shows the 13 proposed regions of management based on “ecosystems, watersheds and science.”

Zinke’s plan would divide the U.S. into 13 regions based on geographic basins and watersheds. That includes North Central Region 5, which covers much of Montana and Wyoming, all of the Dakotas and Nebraska, and some of Kansas and Colorado.

It also includes Northern Rockies Region 8, which covers some of Montana, Washington, Oregon and Idaho, according to maps obtained and released by E&E News.

The reorganization could also move the BLM’s headquarters to Colorado, the Denver Post reported. The relocation of the agency’s employees would require congressional approval, and Zinke said the agency plans to negotiate the move with Congress in the upcoming budget session.

“It’s likely that many administrative functions, such as budget, personnel and legal, will see little if any change at all,” Zinke said. “But how we operate and work together within an ecosystem will be more joint and more collaborative in approach.”

With as many as 16 percent of the Interior Department’s personnel at retirement age, Zinke said now was the time to be transformative. In five years, he said, 40 percent of the agency’s workers will be at retirement age.

“To make it work, it will also require giving more flexibility, resources and decision-making authority to front-line superintendents and managers so that right action can be quickly made without excessive paperwork and burdensome administration requirements,” Zinke said.