Interior Department Reorganizes into 12 “Unified Regions” – To What Effect on The Ground?

From the National Law Review

Department of the Interior (“DOI”) Secretary Ryan Zinke announced on August 29, 2018, DOI’s “final” version of its new reorganization plan, which creates 12 new “Unified Regions” primarily intended to coordinate and expedite decision making related to the land, water, resource management, and permitting functions of the various DOI bureaus, including the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”), National Park Service (“NPS”), U.S. Geological Survey (“USGS”), Bureau of Reclamation (“BOR”), and Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (“OSMRE”).  The Bureau of Indian Affairs will not be affected.

The Plan

According to the reorganization plan, DOI will assign one representative from each bureau to participate in regional leadership teams, which, in turn, will work with a regional facilitator to identify priorities for each Unified Region across six management areas:  collaborative conservation, recreation, permitting, acquisition, human resource management, and information technology management.  The regional leadership teams and facilitators will also develop an options paper for identifying Interior Regional Directors (“IRDs”), who will help coordinate the activities of the various bureaus within each region and to assist in resolving inter-bureau conflicts.

The intent is that the addition of the 12 Unified Regions, the boundaries of which are generally based on eco-regional watershed delineations made in the 2000s, will improve collaboration and coordination across the various interior bureaus, which have disparate – and sometimes conflicting – mandates.  The reorganization plan is also intended to reduce administrative costs and empower field personnel to make management decisions that are more responsive to local and regional resource management concerns than decisions made in Washington, D.C.  Improving the processing of federal permits has been a recurring theme of this administration, including the One Federal Decision framework.

Effect on Bureau Operations

The effect of the plan on bureau operations will largely depend on the bureau and plan implementation.  For example, to comport with the new 12-region map, FWS, which currently has 8 regions, will need to add four new functional regions that each will require staffing and the appointment of new regional administrators with authority over permit decisions and other authorizations.  In contrast, the Unified Regions will not alter BLM’s current state and field office-based management structure, despite that many of the Unified Regions will subsume multiple BLM state offices, and some BLM state offices will straddle multiple Unified Regions.

The immediate impact of the 12 Unified Regions on DOI’s ability to manage to local and regional concerns is therefore unclear.  Though the addition of new operational regions at FWS (and possibly NPS and OSMRE, which currently have 6 and 5 regions, respectively) will arguably augment the ability to respond to local and regional concerns, DOI has emphasized that “the new regional boundaries should have very little impact on field operations.”  Additionally, under the plan, the bureau directors in Washington still retain control of interpreting and applying policy directives in the new Unified Regions.  Moreover, DOI has no plan to relocate or co-locate personnel to regional or local offices, and although the administration has requested funding to support the migration of some BLM and FWS headquarters resources westward, headquarters relocation and personnel migration are not a part of the current plan.  BLM’s ability to maintain its relationship with local communities should be unaffected because its current state and field office-based management system will remain intact.

Impact on Permitting Decisions

Staffing of the new regions will be critical.  While the addition of new regions for bureaus such as FWS may affect the status and ultimate disposition of permits pending there, DOI anticipates – at least for the next year – that current regional managers will take on management responsibilities for the new regions.  But within the next year, affected industries may see increased regional coordination among DOI bureaus that have joint authority to approve their proposed projects and permit applications, which may result in expedited review and approval.

Authors:  Peter J. Schaumberg, John G. Cossa and James M. Auslander, Beveridge & Diamond PC

From the Department of the Interior – June 2018 Press Release

Date: June 21, 2018
Contact: [email protected]

WASHINGTON – In accordance with President​ Donald J.​ Trump’s Executive Order 13781, the Executive Branch will undergo a reorganization to better meet the needs of Americans in the 21st century. Today the President announced a proposal to merge administrative responsibilities from other agencies into the Department of the Interior to improve the efficiency of the regulatory process. In the proposal, Interior would gain the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and aspects of the Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works, while transferring some environmental cleanup programs to the Environmental Protection Agency. These moves strengthen Secretary Zinke’s plan to modernize and reorganize the Department of the Interior through common regional boundaries by taking a more collaborative government approach.

“President Trump is a businessman who knows that an effective operation needs to be organized for success, which is exactly why he is leading this commonsense reorganization of the executive branch,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. “By merging agencies that handle similar, if not the same, functions we would be able to greatly improve services to the American people and better protect the land and wildlife under our care. At Interior, we are leading the government reform and modernization by consolidating dozens of regional bureau boundaries into twelve common unified boundaries — down from 61 for the nine bureaus — and pushing more assets and decision-making out into the field. This will allow government agencies to work more collaboratively on everything from wildlife and habitat management to expanding recreation access on public lands to environmental reviews and permitting infrastructure projects.”

The Department of Commerce’s NMFS would return to Interior and merge with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This would consolidate the administration of the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act into one agency within Interior. This merger would also combine the Services’ science and management capacities, resulting in more consistent federal fisheries and wildlife policy and improved service to the public, particularly on infrastructure permitting.

Interior would also take on certain duties of the Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works, such as flood and storm damage reduction, aquatic ecosystem restoration, and other regulatory activities. This realignment would allow for more rational public policy outcomes and better investments.

Additionally, some of Interior’s environmental cleanup programs would be consolidated into the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program, which would reduce the number of decisions and approvals, eliminate policy inconsistency among agencies, and expedite the cleanup of contaminated sites.

Secretary Zinke is also embarking on a historic reorganization and modernization of the Department, shifting all of the bureau regional boundaries to unified boundaries to improve collaboration and delivery of services. The Departmental reorganization and modernization will also prioritize moving more workers, assets, and decision-making authority to the west where the vast majority of the Department’s work is conducted. Major areas where the Secretary sees improvement include recreation, delivering administrative services (like human resources, IT, and procurement) through updated process and systems. Under Zinke’s plan bureaus within the Department would work together on permitting projects that affect multiple bureaus, reducing the cost and the length of time required to complete a project.

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