(03/24/21) EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this article erroneously stated that Deb Haaland was a junior congresswoman, when she was, in fact, a senior congresswoman. The article has been updated to reflect this.
WASHINGTON — On Monday, March 15, Debra Anne Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo and former senior congresswoman from New Mexico, was confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, making her the first Native American to serve in the Cabinet of a United States president.
In her new role, Haaland will oversee 480 million acres of public lands and many federal agencies, including the Bureaus of Land Management and Reclamation as well as the National Park Service, according to the Department of the Interior.
Monday’s full Senate vote to confirm Haaland was near party-line, 51-40, with GOP support from Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina and Susan Collins, R-Maine, backing the progressive, historic nominee.
At her confirmation hearing, Haaland said: “The (Interior) Department has a role in harnessing the clean energy potential of our public lands and to create jobs and new economic opportunities,” asserting her commitment to restoration and environmental conservation.
“I look forward to working with her to protect our public lands and ensure the responsible use of all our natural resources in a bipartisan manner,” Senator Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, said, highlighting Haaland’s priority of “addressing the diverse needs of our country.”
During her confirmation hearing, Haaland drew criticism from GOP committee members for her past opposition to fracking, as well as her continued support for the Green New Deal.
“I know how important oil and gas revenues are to critical services, but we must also recognize that the energy industry is innovating and our climate challenge must be addressed,” Haaland said. She later reiterated that if confirmed, “it is President Biden’s agenda, not my own agenda, that I would be moving forward.”
Biden has detailed an ambitious public lands agenda in the “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.” In Section 208, Biden vowed to work closely with the Secretary of the Interior to advance climate-conscious initiatives starting with the moratorium on oil and gas leasing on public lands or in offshore waters.
“In New Mexico, the nation’s third-largest oil producer, and also home to 23 tribal nations, where more than a third of the land is owned by the federal government, the Interior played a major role in the state’s recent fracking boom,” Nick Estes, an assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico, said.
A grassroots community organizer and business-woman by trade, Haaland chaired the New Mexico Democratic Party from 2015-17 and is currently the U.S. Representative for New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District. Since the founding of the United States in 1776, no Native American woman had ever been elected to Congress until 2018, when Haaland and Sharice Davids, D-Kansas, were elected.
Haaland’s new role as Cabinet Secretary comes just a few years after she pitched camp by the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and cooked green chile and tortillas for the fight against the several-billion-dollar pipeline. While leading the Democratic Party of New Mexico, she also championed the effort to divest from national bank Wells Fargo due to their funding of the controversial DAPL.
Local environmental activists are hoping Haaland’s continued support for protecting public lands will be an indication of what’s to come in her role as Interior Secretary.
“During her tenure in Congress, Secretary Haaland was a central figure in efforts to protect the Greater Chaco Region from encroaching oil and gas development and helped shepherd a federal public lands package that created 13 new wilderness areas in New Mexico,” Mark Allison, the executive director for New Mexico Wild, said.
With Haaland as Secretary of the Interior, there are expectations that she will bring insights and perspectives from communities that have been historically marginalized.
“The needs of our society are answered when those who have the power to make decisions have the ability to see what you see,” Haaland said. “Your struggles must be theirs — so too your sorrows and your joys.”
Rebecca Hobart is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DailyLobo