Interior Department

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Interior Department

The Interior Department is a federal agency responsible for U.S. natural resources and for land owned by the federal government. The department fulfills this responsibility by promulgating and enforcing numerous regulations concerning natural resources and public lands. The head of the department is the secretary of the interior, who sits on the president's cabinet and reports directly to the president.

The Department of the Interior was created by Congress in 1849 (9 Stat. 395 [43 U.S.C.A. § 1451]). Its original duties included supervision of all mining in the United States, the General Land Office, the Office of Indian Affairs, the Pension Office, the Patent Office, the District of Columbia penitentiary, the U.S. census, and accounts for federal court officers. These agencies and duties had little in common except that their focus was within U.S. borders, and they were out of place in other departments.

As a result of the continuing search for streamlined organization in government, the Department of the Interior eventually dropped a number of its original duties and developed an emphasis on natural resources. The department has retained responsibility for mining, federal lands, and American Indian issues. Over the years, it has added several offices and bureaus to help fulfill its responsibilities.

The chief functions of the Department of the Interior include efforts to conserve and develop mineral and water resources; to conserve, develop, and utilize fish and wildlife resources; to coordinate federal and state recreation programs; to preserve and administer scenic and historic areas; to operate the Job Corps Conservation Centers and Youth and Young Adult Conservation Corps Camps, and other youth training programs; to irrigate arid lands; to manage hydroelectric systems; to provide social and economic services to U.S. territories; and to provide programs and services to Native Americans.

The Department of the Interior contains several different offices, departments, and bureaus. The Office of the Secretary includes the Offices of the Deputy Secretary, Assistant Secretaries, and Inspector General. The inspector general is charged with coordinating and supervising interior audits and with performing inspections to detect Fraud and abuse. In addition, the inspector general is responsible for supervising the financial activities of U.S. territories such as Guam, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands. The Office of Hearings and Appeals is also contained within the Office of the Secretary. Persons involved in disputes with the Department of the Interior may have their cases heard at this office.

The hands-on work of the department is performed by several bureaus and services. The Bureau of Reclamation is devoted to the management of water resources. The Bureau of Land Management is in charge of public lands and resources. The U.S. Geological Survey exists to draw a wide variety of maps and to examine and classify public land structures and mineral resources. The Minerals Management Service assesses the value of minerals and supervises mineral recovery. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement is charged mainly with the operation of a nationwide program on coal mining. The U.S. Bureau of Mines researches mining issues in order to find the best technology for extracting, processing, using, and recycling non-fuel mineral resources. The National Biological Survey conducts research to promote the sound management of plant and animal life. The National Park Service is dedicated to the preservation of national parks, monuments, scenic parkways, preserves, trails, riverways, seashores, lakeshores, and recreation areas. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is devoted primarily to the conservation and enhancement of the nation's fish and wildlife resources.

One controversial function of the department is the oversight of Indian affairs. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) performs a number of functions that have to do with Native American issues. The Department of the Interior played a dominant role in the drafting of tribal constitutions during the nineteenth century. During the twentieth century, the Bureau of Indian Affairs continued its control over Indian tribes by insisting on review and approval powers over amendments to tribal constitutions.

The BIA's management of an Indian land trust led to a high-profile lawsuit in 1996 over the failure of the BIA to provide Indians with accurate financial accountings of lands held in trust for them by the Department of the Interior. U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth has overseen the Class Action, and by the September 2002 he had lost patience with the department and Secretary Gale Norton over the lack of effort and honesty in dealing with the issues before the court. In a scathing 267-page ruling, Lamberth concluded that the department and Norton were "either unwilling or unable to administer competently the [Indian] trust." The plaintiffs allege that the BIA cannot account for $137 billion of income due the 500 members of the class, and the district court held the secretary of the interior in Contempt, Cobell v. Norton, 226 F.Supp.2d 163 (D.D.C.2002). The DC Circuit Court of Appeals later held that: (1) the secretary was not in criminal contempt of order requiring her to initiate the historical accounting project; (2) the secretary did not commit fraud on court, so as to be in criminal contempt, with respect to quarterly status reports; and (3) the secretary did not commit fraud on court, so as to be in criminal contempt, with respect to her representations regarding computer security of trust data (334 F.3d 1128 [D.C.Cir., Jul 18, 2003]).

Like most other federal administrative agencies, the Department of the Interior is controlled by both Congress and the president. Congress created the Department of the Interior, and it could decide to reduce or eliminate it. However, also like most other administrative agencies, the Department of the Interior is a political necessity. Lawmakers are generally well versed in a broad range of topics, but few have the knowledge required to craft the best rules and regulations on, for example, mining or land management. The Department of the Interior possesses such expertise.

At the executive level, the Department of the Interior reports directly to the president, who also exerts control over it. The president has the power to remove and replace department personnel, to propose increases or reductions in responsibilities, and to redirect the department's goals. All of these changes must be approved by Congress.

This dual control over the Department of the Interior makes it subject to political influence. For example, when a new president takes office, he or she will likely make personnel changes in the Department of the Interior to initiate new programs and directions promised in the campaign. Any high-level appointments to administrative agencies will be reviewed by Congress. If a nominee holds views that are contrary to those of the majority in Congress, Congress may reject the nominee, and the president may have to choose one more acceptable to Congress. On the other hand, senators and representatives may be reluctant to resist the actions of a newly elected president for fear of alienating the voting public.

Historically, the Department of the Interior has been less concerned with conservation than with development. Interior Secretary Roy O. West commented in 1928 that the Department of the Interior should have been named the Department of Western Development. In the early twentieth century, U.S. citizens became aware that the resources that were needed for modern life were not inexhaustible, and the Department of the Interior gradually recognized the need for conservation. However, the Department of the Interior's original mission of managing development was at odds with conservation, and the department was incapable of concentrating exclusively on conservation. To fill the void created by this situation, Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970.

Although the EPA has taken over the goals of conservation and Pollution control, the Department of the Interior is still concerned with environmental matters. In 1987, the department reorganized the Bureau of Reclamation to reflect the bureau's new emphasis on management and conservation instead of construction. In the 1990s, Bruce Babbitt, the secretary of the interior under President bill clinton, made several changes in the Department of the Interior to strengthen its environmental protection efforts.

Web site: <>.

Further readings

Department of Interior Web site. Available online at <> (accessed November 20, 2003).

Friedman, Howard M. 1992. "The Oversupply of Regulatory Reform: From Law to Politics in Administrative Rule-making." Nebraska Law Review 71.

Hines, N. William. 1994. "The Land Ethic and American Agriculture." Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review 27.

Pommersheim, Frank, and Shermann Marshall. 1992. "Liberation, Dreams, and Hard Work: An Essay on Tribal Court Jurisprudence." Wisconsin Law Review 411.

U.S. Government Manual Web site. Available online at <> (accessed November 10, 2003).

Volkman, John M. 1987. "Testing New Forms of River Basin Governance: Implication of the Seattle Master Builders Case." Environmental Law 17.


Environmental Law; Fish and Fishing; Game; Mine and Mineral Law; Native American Rights.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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