Environmental Justice at the Department of the Interior

Click here to return to EELP’s Federal Environmental Justice Tracker.

The Department of the Interior plays a unique role as the steward of public lands and waters, as well as overseeing the Bureau of Indian Education and the Buruea of Indian Affairs. In this capacity, the Department has significant discretion in how it manages those lands and whether it prioritizes extraction, recreation, or conservation and restoration.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, and has repeatedly committed the Department to addressing environmental disparities. To-date, that commitment has included prioritizing consultation with Tribes and rescinding Trump-era Orders that fast-tracked energy-related permitting. Interior is also in the process of conducting a nationwide review of the federal oil and gas program pursuant to Executive Order 14008 with the goal of increasing renewable energy production on public lands. (For more information on that review, see our Regulatory Tracker page on the Federal Oil and Gas Leasing Pause and Review). Interior’s policies and permitting decisions will play a significant role in determining if and how environmental justice communities, particularly Tribes, will benefit from that new development, in addition to other federal programs and funding.

For updates on pipeline projects impacting Tribal water rights, see our Regulatory Tracker pages on the Dakota Access Pipeline, Enbridge Line 5, and Enbridge Line 3.

Public Participation

For tips on writing public comments and scheduling EO 12866 meetings with OIRA, visit our Public Participation Resources Page.

  • March 31, 2022: DOI seeks comments on improving federal hardrock mining regulations, laws, and permitting processes. Specifically, DOI asks if there are areas that should be off-limits from mining; how to improve permitting without reducing opportunities for public input; and how can Tribes and communities be effectively engaged earlier in the permitting process. Comments are due by August 30, 2022. To submit written comments, click here. The Interagency Working Group on Mining, Regulations, and Law will also host virtual public listening sessions on July 19, July 21, and July 26. Click here to register for the virtual public listening sessions.
  • Dec. 6, 2021: The same day as the first Tribal Nations Summit since 2016, the White House releases a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by 17 federal agencies, including Interior, committing to increase consultation and collaboration with Tribes in recognition of existing treaty and reserved rights. The MOU includes agency-specific commitmemts including to create a searchable treaty database, and integrate tribal treaty and reserved rights early into agency decision-making, in particular work to address the climate crisis. (See pp. 3-4 of the MOU for more).
  • Oct. 29, 2021: DOI releases draft guidelines on implementation of the new Indian Youth Service Corps program, which aims to engage Native American youth in conservation programs on public lands. DOI will hold consultations with Tribes, Alaska Native corporations, and the Native Hawaiian community in November and December. More information and registration for these consultations can be found here.
  • Oct. 19, 2021: DOI announces five virtual public listening sessions from Oct. 19 through Oct.  27 to receive stakeholder input on barriers that underserved communities may face in accessing recreational opportunities on DOI public lands and waters. The sessions are part of the administration’s America the Beautiful initiative.
  • Oct. 15, 2021: Secretary Haaland and President Biden begin the White House Tribal Nations Summit by pledging more federal collaboration with tribes in managing public lands and in environmental decision-making with the use of Indigenous knowledge. As part of the effort, two White House offices also released a memorandum acknowledging the importance of Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge and committing to elevate its role in decision-making. (For more, see our White House EJ Tracker page).
  • Sep. 14, 2021: The DOI invites tribal feedback on three topics: the land-into-trust process; leasing and rights of way; and sacred sites and treaty rights through a series of virtual consultations beginning on Oct. 18, 2021. Visit this page to learn more about DOI’s tribal consultation, see upcoming consultations, and find past consultations.
  • July 15, 2021: Interior announces consultations with Tribal and Native Hawaiian community leaders as part of an effort to update the agency’s regulations under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). See the draft proposed text and current regulations here. The agency plans to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) in Oct. 2021.

Internal Equity Efforts

Personnel

  • April 30, 2021: Interior announces that Sarah Krakoff will serve as deputy solicitor for parks and wildlife. Krakoff previously directed the University of Colorado Law School’s American Indian Law Clinic and is an expert in Native American law and environmental justice.
  • April 29, 2022: BLM names Jason O’Neal as its “top cop” directing the Office of Law Enforcement and Security. O’Neal previously served as director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Justice Services, and police chief for the Chickasaw Nation in Ada, Oklahoma. While at the BIA, O’Neal established an Indian Country Missing and Murdered Unit focused on investigating active and unresolved cases of murdered and missing persons. O’Neal is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
  • April 21, 2022: Joel West Williams, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, joins Interior as deputy solicitor for Indian Affairs. Williams is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and previously worked as an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.
  • Apr. 13, 2022: BLM announces that Juan Palma will be a Senior Policy Advisor on climate change, equity, and environmental justice. His work will include implementing key executive orders and overseeing the development and implementation of a BLM “climate/equity/environmental justice committee.” Palma previously directed BLM’s Utah office and retired in 2015, going on to be the chief conservation officer for Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors (HECHO).
  • Apr. 8, 2022: Pamela Smith, the first Black chief of the U.S. Park Police, announces her retirement effective April 30, after being in the position for about a year. The announcement comes two days after the Fraternal Order of Police U.S. Park Police Labor Committee requested that DOI’s Inspector General investigate alleged consistent mismanagement over several administrations due to a failure to hire sufficient personnel. 
  • Feb. 2021: Interior announces that Natalie Landreth, a citizen of Oklahoma’s Chickasaw Nation, will serve as deputy solicitor for land, and that Daniel Cordalis, a member of the Navajo Nation, will serve as deputy solicitor for water.
  • Jan. 31, 2022: DOI hires its first full-time investigator, David Barland-Liles, to oversee compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which requires the return of cultural artifacts and human remains to tribes. Barland-Liles will investigate allegations that museums and other institutions are not complying with the law, as well as provide assistance to institutions on how to comply.
  • Nov. 18, 2021: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) releases a report showing that the Bureau of Land Management’s office relocation to Grand Junction, Colorado from Washington, D.C. resulted in a dramatic decrease of Black and Asian employees, particularly in key positions.
  • Nov. 18, 2021: The Senate confirms Charles “Chuck” Sams III to lead the National Park Service, making him the first Native American to lead the agency. Sams is a former administrator of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon and the first Native American to lead the NPS.
  • Oct. 13, 2021: DOI announces new appointments including Joaquin Gallegos as Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs and Wizipan Little Elk as Principal Deputy to the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. Michael Martinez and Matthew Strickler are appointed as deputy assistant secretaries for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. 
  • Sep. 29, 2021: The Senate confirms Robert Anderson as Interior Department Solicitor in a 53-44 vote. Anderson is an expert in federal Indian and public lands law and is an enrolled member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.
  • Aug. 18, 2021: President Biden nominates Charles “Chuck” Sams III to lead the National Park Service.  
  • July 22, 2021: The Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources  approves Robert Anderson in a 10-9 vote as Principal Deputy Solicitor. The revote corrects a procedural mistake from a previous markup. Anderson is an enrolled member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and an expert in natural resources and Federal Indian law.
  • July 9, 2021: Kathryn Isom-Clause (Taos Pueblo) joins DOI as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.
  • April 30, 2021: Interior announces Lawrence Roberts will serve as the first ever Indigenous chief of staff. Roberts is a citizen of the Oneida Nation and previously served as President Obama’s acting assistant secretary for Indian affairs and principal deputy secretary for Indian Affairs.
  • April 22, 2021: President Biden nominates Bryan Newland as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. Newland is a citizen and former Tribal President of the Bay Mills Indian Community (Ojibwe). He previously also served as Chief Judge of the Bay Mills Tribal Court.
  • March 15, 2021: The Senate votes 51-40 to confirm Democratic congresswoman Deb Haaland, a member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, as Secretary of the Interior. Haaland’s confirmation makes her the first Native cabinet secretary in U.S. history.

Rules and Orders

  • Feb. 4, 2022: Interior Solicitor Robert Anderson rules in favor of tribes against the State of North Dakota, finding that the minerals beneath the riverbed of the Missouri River where it flows through the Fort Berthold Reservation belong to the Three Affiliated Tribes (the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation). The opinion reverses a May 2020 decision by the Trump administration ruling that the state is the legal owner of the submerged lands. The Tribes are thus entitled to an estimated $100 million in unpaid royalties and future payments from oil drilling beneath the river.
  • Sep. 16, 2021: A coalition of tribes and environmental groups petition the DOI to revamp hardrock mining regulations to better protect Indigenous and other marginalized communities from displacement, grant stronger safeguards for sacred and cultural resources, and reduce environmental contamination from mining activities.. House Democrats are aiming to reform mining policy through reconciliation discussions, including creating the first royalty for hardrock mining on public lands.
  • April 27, 2021: Secretary Haaland issues Order 3400, which re-delegates the authority to review and approve land-into-trust applications to the BIA’s regional directors. In 2017, the Trump BLM required these decisions to be made by DOI’s headquarters staff. Also on April 27, Principal Deputy Solicitor Robert Anderson withdraws several Trump-era legal opinions, reaffirming Interior’s legal authority to take land into trust in Alaska, and removing unduly burdensome process requirements for Tribes seeking to place land into trust.

Enforcement

For other enforcement decisions affecting tribes and tribal authority, see the “Enforcement” section on our EPA EJ Tracker Page.

  • Feb. 15, 2022: DOI outlines reforms to the Bureau of Indian Affairs detention program after concerning reports of overcrowding and potential danger in the facilities, leading to at least 19 deaths since 2016. Planned reforms include improving the cell checking process and the response to medical emergencies, improving the recruitment and training of staff, and promoting interagency coordination.
  • July 7, 2021: Secretary Haaland initiates a new departmental law enforcement task force to review the Department’s policing operations. U.S. Park Police have been repeatedly scrutinized for excessive use of force and lack of transparency regarding internal investigations, including the killing of Bijan Ghaisar in Virginia in 2017 and beating of two Australian journalists during peaceful demonstrations outside the White House in 2020.
  • April 22, 2021: Secretary Haaland announces a new 27-member Joint Commission led by DOI and DOJ to reduce violent crime against American Indians and Alaska Natives as part of DOI’s efforts to implement the Not Invisible Act.
  • April 1, 2021: Secretary Haaland announces a new Missing & Murdered Unit (MMU) in BIA’s Office of Justice Services to direct work involving missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Restoring Land and Water Rights

For other enforcement decisions affecting tribes and tribal authority, see the “Enforcement” section on our EPA EJ Tracker Page.

Funding Opportunities

This is not a comprehensive list. For more information on DOI funding opportunities, visit DOI’s Newsroom or Grants.gov.

  • July 21, 2022: DOI issues final guidance for states and the Navajo Nation on how to apply for $725 million in grant money for cleaning up abandoned coal mines. The guidance designates projects into tiers: Priority 1 and 2 projects “protect public health and safety from extreme effects” and “adverse effects” respectively; Priority 3 projects “restore land water resources” previously degraded by coal mining. The guidance also requires applicants to specify how they will identify and address “disproportionate burdens… on disadvantaged communities, communities of color, low-income communities, and Tribal and Indigenous communities.”
  • June 10, 2022: Secretary Haaland launches the Indian Youth Service Corps, which seeks to engage tribal youth (ages 16 to 30) in various conservation and preservation projects. Under the program, tribes can enter into cooperative agreements and obtain funding from the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and Commerce for various projects, including research, oral histories, habitat surveys, and watershed restoration. Read the guideline for the Indian Youth Service Corps here
  • May 6, 2022: Interior announces $61.1 million available for 26 cities to refurbish or create new urban parks, recreation spaces, and trails through the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership (ORLP) program. The selected projects include $5 million to remediate a brownfield in Rio de Los Angeles State Park and restore public access to the Los Angeles River; $900,000 to make improvements in Heilmann Park in Detroit, MI; and $1.3 million to expand and renovate Willard Park in Minneapolis, MN.
  • April 11, 2022: Interior announces $46 million for Tribal communities to address the impacts of climate change in Indigenous communities. The funds will support climate resilience and adaptation; ocean and coastal management; community-driven relocation and project-in-place activities; and internships and youth engagement. Tribes and Tribal organizations must submit application packages no later than July 6, 2022 at midnight Eastern Standard Time using the USGS ECO Opps website.
  • Mar. 4, 2022: DOI announces more than $144 million in fundingis available to select states and Tribes for abandoned mine land (AML) reclamation efforts in fiscal year 2022. AML funding is designed to help states undertake abandoned mine land remediation projects in order to reduce methane emissions and address hazards impacting nearby communities. 
  • Feb. 7, 2022: Interior announces the first allocation of $725 million from a $11.3 billion pot included in the bipartisan infrastructure deal to reclaim abandoned mine lands. The funds are available to 22 states and the Navajo Nation. The total funds must be allocated over 15 years. Guidance on how to apply for the funds will be forthcoming. Interior publishes darft guidance and invites comment for eligible states and the Navajo Nation on May 23
  • Dec. 17, 2021: Interior announces that states are eligible to receive up to $25 million each to close and clean up orphaned gas and oil wells. Secretary Haaland stated that, “the Interior Department is committed to helping working families, often in rural and Tribal communities, who face hazardous pollution, toxic water levels, and land subsidence both during energy development and long after extractive companies have moved on.” States will be able to apply for initial grants before May 15, 2022. Read Interior’s notificaton letter to states here.
  • June 24, 2021: Interior announces $529.3 million in Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) funding for more than 1,900 local governments. PILT funds are issued annually for tax-exempt federal lands, which can’t be taxed by local governments. See the full list of qualifying states and counties here.
  • May 10, 2021: Interior announces $150 million for the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership (ORLP) competitive grant program to create new outdoor recreation spaces and parks in economically underserved urban communities. States can apply on behalf of eligible communities before Sep. 24 through Grants.gov. State sponsors much match the grant award 1:1.  Interested communities should contact their state lead agency for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) listed here.