Interior Secretary Deb Haaland pauses while meeting with activists on March 18, 2021 in Washington, D.C. The Interior Department is being asked to do more than ever before, but has fewer people with which to do it.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland pauses while meeting with activists on March 18, 2021 in Washington, D.C. The Interior Department is being asked to do more than ever before, but has fewer people with which to do it. Win McNamee/Getty Images

‘It’s Glacial’: One Agency Is Still Struggling to Overcome the ‘Assault’ on Its Workforce

Biden promised to revive a "hollowed out" federal workforce, but one agency is struggling to realize that promise.

This is the third part in a series. Click here to read part one looking at Biden's hiring agenda as a whole, and here to read about an agency that has found success in delivering on the president's promise. 

The Interior Department, as much as nearly any federal agency, has been given opportunities to succeed, and to grow. 

Lawmakers for the last three years have been throwing resources at it. In 2020, President Trump signed into law the Great American Outdoors Act. The following year, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Last year, he signed the Inflation Reduction Act. All provided significant resources to Interior. Now, it needs the people to oversee their implementation. 

The department lost about 6% of its workforce during the Trump administration, according to data maintained by the Office of Personnel Management, among the largest decreases of any department. Since Biden took office, it has regrown its rolls by less than 2%. 

The department, which declined to comment for this story, has recognized it is facing a crisis. It is being asked to do more than ever before, but hasfewer people with which to do it. In a recent workforce planning document, Interior said the infrastructure law and the GOAO will force it to “address current skills and pay gaps experienced by the bureaus.” It must attract the required technical talent pool, improve its data collection around hiring and reduce the time it takes to get someone on board, the department said. 

In the meantime, according to Chandra Rosenthal, who has spent time at the departments of Energy and Justice and now leads the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility’s Rocky Mountain Office, Interior is taking shortcuts. At the Bureau of Land Management, for example, employees are increasingly using a “loophole” to avoid conducting thorough analysis before providing grazing permits. The waiver process robs the public of an opportunity to weigh in before a permit is awarded, Rosenthal said. 

“They are cutting corners where they can, legally,” she explained. 

Interior is particularly hurting for specialists, Rosenthal said, such as biologists and botanists, who headed for the exits under Trump. 

Joel Clement is one such policy expert who left government during the previous administration. He served as a career senior executive and the director of Interior's Office of Policy Analysis before then-Secretary Ryan Zinke reassigned him and dozens of others for what they claimed was retaliation. Clement in particular suggested he was being punished for speaking out on the risks of climate change to Alaska Native populations. 

“There was an intentional effort to hobble the agency,” Clement said. “Not just to reduce the workforce, but to diminish the capacity of the department.” 

As the department looks to regain what it lost—and grow from there to tackle new responsibilities—Clement predicted it will face severe challenges. 

“It's a hard thing to bounce back from,” he said, adding, “It was such an assault.” 

He flagged three key areas where staffing shortages will hinder Interior from carrying out its mission: health and safety issues for indigenous people that are "urgent and immediate" and require people in place to address them; the energy transition, for which Interior is "ground zero;" and the Fish and Wildlife Service generally, where advocates have long bemoaned insufficient resources. In a recent survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists, FWS scientists cited limited staff capacity as the greatest barrier to science-based decision making at the agency.

“Gutting programs, thwarting or removing scientists, and subverting missions,” one FWS scientist said of the priorities at the agency during the Trump administration. “It will take many years to just get back to where we were, and there is a constant fear that it can all be demolished again if a similarly bent administration comes to power.” 

In the coming months and years, Interior will be taking on a myriad of new responsibilities. The GAOA provided the National Parks Service with $10 billion over five years to tackle its longstanding maintenance backlog. The infrastructure law awarded the department a whopping $28 billion for habitat restoration, drought mitigation, wildland fire management and extreme weather preparation. Lawmakers then gave Interior another $6 billion through the IRA for tribal electrification, land conservation, more habitat restoration, more maintenance backlog work, endangered species activities, water projects and climate disaster mitigation for indigenous communities. The projects are spread throughout Interior’s bureaus and will all require additional manpower. 

“In a way, the agency gets out over its skis a bit by having an ambitious agenda without first having a moonshot to get all the right people back in there,” Clement said. 

The department does have some strategies in place, however, and the resources to implement them. Quickly after passing GAOA, lawmakers in both parties flagged that the measure did not provide sufficient personnel for the National Park Service—which has struggled for a decade with understaffing, losing 16% of its workforce over that time—to carry out its new workload. Democrats subsequently included $500 million for NPS hiring in the IRA. The infrastructure law included a new minimum wage for federal firefighters and boosts to base salaries. 

Internally, Interior's human capital office is focusing on better supporting firefighter needs, improving working conditions for its law enforcement personnel, closing skill gaps identified by the Office of Personnel Management and strengthening the talent pipeline for its career Senior Executive Service. The department noted 70% of its current SESers are eligible to retire within five years. 

In the meantime, as Interior looks to realize the benefits of its newfound resources and reforms, the department is straining its existing workforce. 

“It means everyone is working twice as hard,” Clement said. 

PEER’s Rosenthal said employees have reported the same to her group. 

“That’s what we're hearing from people on the ground,” Rosenthal said. “They’re expected to do more.” 

The annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey demonstrates similar findings. Just 54% of Interior employees said their workload was reasonable, compared to 61% across government and 59% at the department in 2020. Global satisfaction at Interior dropped off by 4 percentage points since 2020, mirroring a similar governmentwide decline. NPS Director Chuck Sams said in an internal email to staff last month that the results demonstrated there were “many areas for improvement” and said the agency was “hiring additional staff to support mental health and wellness.” 

“It’s glacial, the pace of action,” Rosenthal said of Interior’s efforts. “The repercussions of the last administration are still being felt and instead of getting better, it’s getting worse.” 

As the department attempts to rebuild its workforce, it will have an opening to bring in employees not yet jaded by the ebbs and flows of administration turnover and evolving policy.

“There is an opportunity to get people in who have not felt that sting,” Clement said. “An opportunity to bring in a fresh, enthusiastic workforce.”