Biden Picks Deb Haaland to Be First Native American Secretary of Interior

Biden Picks Deb Haaland to Be First Native American Secretary of Interior

17:47 - President-elect Joe Biden has tapped Deb Haaland to lead the Interior Department, according to people familiar with the matter, putting the Democratic representative in line to become the first American Indian cabinet secretary in U.S. history.

If confirmed as Interior secretary, Haaland would have a chance to chart the future of conservation, recreation and oil drilling on federal land, including territory in New Mexico, the state she represents in the House of Representatives.

Haaland, a 60-year-old citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, a 7,700-member tribe west of Albuquerque, New Mexico, has drawn widespread praise from environmental groups and tribal leaders. They say she would bring a deep commitment to protect the land to an agency in charge of 500 million acres of it.

“Joe Biden chose the most qualified person and put a true movement progressive in his cabinet,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which had championed the choice.

However, Haaland could face pushback from Republicans in the Senate, wary of her opposition to fracking, the technique that has driven U.S. oil and gas development to record levels, and her support of the Green New Deal, a progressive plan to rapidly decarbonize the U.S. economy.

Haaland has said she’s “wholeheartedly against fracking and drilling on public lands.”

If confirmed, Haaland would be the third House Democrat to leave for the Biden administration -- which would leave the chamber’s Democratic leaders with a narrow majority before special elections to fill the open seats.

Jane Kleeb, a pipeline activist and the chairwoman of the Nebraska Democratic Party who encouraged Haaland’s selection said she was struck by the lawmaker’s focus on protecting the land during a meeting of Democratic operatives last year. Haaland’s first words at the microphone were that “the land is everything.”

“Her focus always would be protecting the land,” Kleeb said in an interview before Biden made his selection. Haaland “will take that department in a completely new direction.”

The Interior Department runs the national park system and oversees grazing, recreation, energy development and other activities on about a fifth of U.S. land. The department holds trust title to more than 56 million acres for tribal nations and its Bureau of Indian Affairs works directly with 578 federally recognized Native American tribes.

If confirmed, Haaland would be charged with charting a new course for the department, including implementing Biden’s campaign promises to limit fracking and stop permitting fossil projects on federal land.

That would be a dramatic shift from the Trump administration. Over the past four years, the Interior Department has relentlessly driven mining and drilling on federal real estate, while creating new hunting and fishing opportunities at wildlife refuges and hatcheries.

In the House, Haaland has advocated greater consultation with tribes, conservation of federal lands and federal-tribal collaboration to prevent violent crimes. She worked to block drilling near the sandstone mesas and ruins of northwest New Mexico’s Greater Chaco region.

Haaland grew up in a military family, with her father a combat Marine and her mother in the Navy. She attended 13 different schools before graduating in Albuquerque, and she obtained her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of New Mexico.

Haaland has talked about her struggles as a single mother, volunteering at her daughter’s pre-school and at times relying on food assistance.

She has long been active in Democratic politics, volunteering for John Kerry’s presidential bid in 2004, working on Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012, and later serving as chairwoman of the New Mexico Democratic Party.

She also served as tribal administrator of the San Felipe Pueblo, ran a small business producing Pueblo Salsa and oversaw business operations of the second-largest tribal gaming enterprise in New Mexico as chairwoman of the Laguna Development Corporation Board of Directors.