Deb Haaland

Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

Deb Haaland was appointed by President Biden to head the Department of Interior. She is the first Native American to oversee the department that includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Conservationists, tribes and progressives hailed the U.S. Senate's confirmation of Deb Haaland as interior secretary Monday (March 15), calling it a historic move that will usher in much-needed change.

Fossil fuel advocates said she will weaken a cornerstone of the state's economy.

Haaland, 60, is the first Native American not only to head the department that manages tribal lands and services, but also to become a U.S. Cabinet secretary.

A Laguna Pueblo member, she will oversee vast public and tribal lands, and she will be in charge of the bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education - two historically underfunded agencies that have had troubled histories with tribes.

Predictably, her ascension to the upper ranks of the White House is polarizing, perhaps more so than the 51-40 vote to confirm her might suggest.

Haaland's political allies are jubilant that she has broken a historic ethnic barrier, and they believe she will make a sharp pivot from the Trump administration's oil-and-gas friendly policies to those that promote renewable energy, combat climate change and protect ecosystems.

"It's very fitting that an Indigenous woman is in this position to be making decisions and having influence over things that pertain to our Mother Earth," said Leona Morgan, a Navajo community activist. "And we've never had this before. It's a critical time because of how damaged our environment is."

Haaland is aligned with traditional tribal values, such as caring for the land, in a way that neither the Democrat Party nor Republican Party is, Morgan said.

A pro-industry group denounced Haaland's confirmation, saying the 40 votes against it show many don't trust her.

"Deb Haaland has said she will simply follow President [Joe] Biden's orders," Larry Behrens, western states director for nonprofit Power the Future, said in a statement.

"Sadly those orders are already killing jobs in Haaland's own state. During her confirmation hearing, Deb Haaland made a commitment to listen to America's energy workers. Now we will see if she was telling the truth," he added.

New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce called Haaland's confirmation "bittersweet."

"While Rep. Haaland's elevation to the Biden Cabinet is a proud moment for our state, her radical position on energy will be devastating to New Mexico," Pearce said in a statement. "Our oil and gas industry is vital to our state and its financial health, and Haaland has made it clear she opposes fracking, the oil and gas industry and supports the Green New Deal."

Pearce contends Haaland will hurt the industry and, in turn, working families when she carries out Biden's "leftist energy agenda."

And like Behrens, Pearce said he hopes Haaland will follow through on her statements to work with the oil and gas industry.

It comes as no surprise that industry leaders are bashing Haaland because she will pursue much different policies than her predecessors under the Trump administration, such as seeking to curb greenhouse gases, said Jon Goldstein, the Environmental Defense Fund's director of regulatory and legislative affairs.

"What Secretary Haaland is going to bring ... is a commitment to science," Goldstein said. "Also what she brings is an understanding of the long view, rather than making decisions based on a quarterly earnings statement."

That understanding comes from having deep roots in the Native American community, which thinks generations ahead when making decisions about environmental stewardship, Goldstein said.

The Interior Department manages roughly a half-billion acres of public land and holds about 56 million acres in trust for tribes.

The agency, which employs 70,000 people, regulates activities on federal lands, including parks maintenance, grazing, logging, and oil and gas extraction.

Haaland as interior secretary will be "a fundamental shift," said Charles Wilkinson, professor of Indian Law at the University of Colorado.

"Mineral leasing is going to be cut way back," Wilkinson said. "We're going to get serious about climate change again."

Wilkinson said he expects Haaland will help resolve long-standing water rights disputes involving tribes and will work to improve pueblos' flawed infrastructure that compounded the coronavirus' spread.

Haaland also has expressed interest in improving collaboration between the federal government and tribes, empowering tribes to have more of a say in decisions that affect them, Wilkinson said.

She's also a strong supporter of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, which were reduced in size under the Trump administration, Wilkinson said. So it's possible the two monuments will be restored at least partly to their original sizes, he added.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was among Democratic leaders who issued statements celebrating Haaland being confirmed.

"Her leadership at Interior will not only help reverse the harmful policies of the last four years but chart a new, balanced and productive course for the future," Lujan Grisham said.

New Mexico's All Pueblo Council of Governors also applauded Haaland.

"This confirmation is a defining moment for Indigenous peoples not only in the United States but around the world," the Council said in a statement. "Indigenous peoples are the original stewards of our lands, waters, skies and of all living beings."

A diverse array of supporters pushed to get Haaland nominated, from tribal leaders and environmental activists to Hollywood celebrities and progressive Democrats.

In the end, Haaland winning over key moderates, including Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, sealed her confirmation.

"She has a lot support," Morgan said. "I think a lot of us knew she would be confirmed. And now we know we can get to work."

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