Q&A with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland

By the U.S. Department of the Interior

The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) by name sounds like mainly indoor office work, when, in fact, we manage millions of acres outdoors, including ocean, Great Lakes and coastal areas. DOI has stewardship responsibilities that extend from coastal areas nationwide to the deepest parts of the ocean floor and across the globe in insular areas. In celebration of June as Ocean Month, we met with Secretary Deb Haaland to hear her thoughts on DOI’s important role in protecting our ocean.

How does the stewardship of ocean and coastal resources fit into the department’s overall portfolio?
The responsibility to leave a livable planet for future generations would not be possible without the conservation of our ocean and coasts. The ocean plays a critical role in clean energy development and the nature-based solutions we seek to combat climate change.

Our ‘blue’ portfolio provides tremendous economic, cultural, recreational and biological value to the country. I am so impressed with the commitment of bureaus and offices across the department to uphold their stewardship responsibilities and respond to ever-growing threats and complex changes to ocean, Great Lakes and coastal resources through increased understanding, conservation, responsible use, and collaborative science-based management.

Climate change presents complex challenges and threats to our ocean, Great Lakes and coastal resources, as well as the communities that depend on them. Can you tell us about some specific ways DOI is working to address them?
Too many members of coastal communities find themselves faced with the tough decisions to relocate or continue to face extreme storms, intense heat or sea level rise. It’s a clear indication of the devastating impacts greenhouse gases have on our ocean, Great Lakes and coasts.

However, we also know that that the ocean absorbs heat from human-caused warming; that wetlands create natural barriers to more frequent and intense storms; and that healthy coasts help all who rely on their resources to thrive. So, we’re working to make those resources more resilient by making decisions guided by science, the expertise of our career staff, innovative technologies and indigenous knowledge. Our bureaus are working incredibly hard on capturing carbon, flood mitigation, water purification, protecting valuable habitats and restoring balance in our ecosystems.

How do you see DOI empowering local organizational levels to address the new administration’s priorities for COVID-19, climate, social justice and infrastructure?
For generations, we’ve put off the transition to clean energy, and now we face a climate crisis. It’s a crisis that doesn’t discriminate—every community faces more extreme weather and the costs associated with the pain and heartache that those events bring. But not every community has the resources to rebuild, or even get up and relocate when a climate event happens in their backyards. The climate crisis disproportionately impacts communities of color and poor families.

As our country faces the interlocking challenges of a global pandemic, an economic downturn, racial injustice and the climate crisis—we have to transition to a brighter future for everyone.

The Biden-Harris Administration believes that addressing climate change is not only a challenge but also an opportunity to set our world on a path toward equity and prosperity. That’s why President Biden hit the ground running and set ambitious goals that meet the urgent demands of the climate crisis, which will not only help communities who carry the burdens of climate injustice, but also empower American workers and businesses to lead a clean energy revolution.

In order to achieve this, DOI is committed to empowering our federal, state, and local partners and tribes to meet our shared goals by providing communities the information, guidance and support they need to create strong, resilient communities that can flourish.

The ocean is a vast resource that covers many issues. How does DOI work with other departments and agencies who also help manage blue portfolios?
The ocean connects all of us, and one single agency cannot manage these wide-ranging responsibilities alone. Like any other issue, it’s important to work as a team across the cabinet. Our ocean, Great Lakes and coasts have an overarching impact on several issues that many agencies manage. The scientists and experts who work at DOI collaborate with other teams at different departments and agencies on efforts ranging from studying the ocean floor and clean energy development to protecting habitat for rare coastal species and managing public lands.

So far we’ve talked a lot about policy and agency specifics. How does DOI reach the American people and help them better understand and connect with ocean and coasts?
When I was growing up, I learned that everything was connected, from spending time in the outdoors with my dad and helping my grandpa in the cornfield in our village at the Pueblo of Laguna. As a child, I spent many hours of many days near the ocean on both coasts. Sometimes my dad felt it important to just walk on the beach, and other times we relished in the ocean’s bounty. I’ve watched sunrises and sunsets on our ocean and those experiences remain constant in my belief that we will always benefit from a healthy ocean.

During this pandemic, people from all walks of life have found solace in the outdoors and we have a renewed appreciation for our natural treasures. Spending time out in nature is something everyone should have regular opportunities to do, which is why at DOI we’re making it a priority to make the outdoors more accessible for everyone no matter where they live, their ability, their access to resources or their background.

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