By Mary Josie Blanchard
The Department of the Interior (DOI) was created March 3, 1849, the last day of the Polk Administration, and given a variety of responsibilities previously belonging to the Treasury, State and War Departments. These included such activities as issuing pensions, patents, and land grants; surveying public lands, overseeing Indian Affairs, the Federal Court system, mines and public buildings; and conducting the census. Thus, DOI was to be a “Home Department” to deal with matters within the United States.
For the next several decades, as the government grew, DOI received more and more functions. Functions were as varied as constructing the District of Columbia’s water system; managing hospitals, universities, and the D.C. jail; and exploring and mapping geological and mineral resources. DOI provided lands for homesteads, railroads and land grant colleges. Territorial affairs were assigned to DOI in 1873. Eventually 13 States were created from those territories. DOI also implemented The Indian Allotment Act of 1887, which gave Tribal lands to individual Indians, resulting in the loss of much of the Indian tribal land base.
As the years went by, the DOI also became the ‘Mother of Departments’, as various functions spun off to become the nuclei of other departments. New departments that had their origins in DOI were Agriculture, Labor, Commerce, Energy, Education, and Veterans Affairs.
During the early 20th century, DOI became increasingly the focus of natural resources conservation and public land management. President Theodore Roosevelt set aside major parcels of land that later became National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges. In the 1930s and 1940s, large multi-purpose projects supplied water and opened new areas to agriculture. Laws provided for Interior to protect wildlife, to regulate grazing and mining, and to provide citizenship to American Indians.
As steward of 20 percent of the Nation’s lands, DOI now manages mineral and energy development on the Nation’s public lands and Outer Continental Shelf; oversees nationwide coal surface mine land reclamation; is the largest supplier and manager of water in the Western United States; and upholds Federal trust responsibilities to Indian Tribes and Alaska Natives. Additionally, the Department is responsible for wildlife conservation; historic preservation, endangered species conservation; mapping, geological, hydrological and biological science for the Nation; and providing financial and technical assistance to remaining territories.
DOI’s richly diverse missions (e.g., preservation, multiple use, visitation and resource development) are both complementary and potentially conflicting. Moreover, how the land is managed within DOI’s boundaries can affect surrounding communities. Thus, cooperating with State, local and tribal governments and across Federal agencies is a must.
As you can tell, I find working at the Department of the Interior to be fascinating and rewarding.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, not the Department of the Interior.
Mary Josie Blanchard received her B.A. and M.A. in government in 1969 and 1971. Blanchard serves as Deputy Director, Environmental Policy and Compliance, Office of the Secretary of the Department of the Interior. She deals with issues associated with environmental impacts, response management, facility compliance, and cleanup of DOI lands. She is recipient of the Department’s Distinguished Service Medal–the highest award bestowed by Interior.