Ryan Zinke Shakes Department of the Interior Like a Terrier Shaking a Rat

Ryan Zinke is 15 days away from his 120th day as Secretary of the Interior.  How do we know it is 15 days?

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is reassigning top career officials within his ranks, a shake-up that appears to be the start of a broad reorganization of a department that manages one-fifth of all land within the United States.

The decision to move members of the Senior Executive Service (SES) is only legally permitted after a political appointee has been in office for 120 days; Zinke won’t reach that mark until June 28. But the letters that three dozen or more Interior officials got Thursday night — one of which was obtained by The Washington Post — provides them with 15 days notice of their job change. The notice means their reassignments could take place at the earliest date that’s legally permissible.


The Senior Executive Service, equivalent in rank to generals and admirals, were intended to be managers that could handle the hardest problems. It hasn’t turned out that way.

More details.

The shake-up comes two weeks before agencies across the government must submit initial plans to the White House showing how they intend to reorganize, reduce their workforce, assess which programs are necessary and look for changes that save money.

The officials who received notices include Interior’s top climate policy official, Joel Clement, who directs the Office of Policy Analysis, as well as at least five senior Fish and Wildlife Service officials — nearly a quarter of that agency’s career SES staff. Among the Fish and Wildlife officials are the assistant director for international affairs, Bryan Arroyo; the southwest regional director, Benjamin Tuggle; and the southeast regional director, Cindy Dohner.

Other moves include the transfer of BLM New Mexico state director Amy Lueders to Fish and Wildlife and the reassignment of Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Weldon “Bruce” Loudermilk, Acting Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Michael S. Black and Acting Special Trustee for American Indians Debra L. DuMontier.

“The President signed an executive order to reorganize the federal government for the future and the Secretary has been absolutely out front on that issue,” Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email. “Personnel moves are being conducted to better serve the taxpayer and the Department’s operations through matching Senior Executive skill sets with mission and operational requirements.”

Dan Ashe, who headed Fish and Wildlife Service under the Obama administration and worked at the agency for more than two decades, said in an interview that having closely watched every transition since Ronald Reagan took the helm of the federal government from Jimmy Carter in 1981, “anything at this scale is unprecedented.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Ashe said, adding that the officials being moved from posts at Fish and Wildlife “have records of exceptional service.”


This is an actual video of Zinke at work:

These are the key takeaways from this action.

Shifting 50 general-officer-equivalents is not a small undertaking. It represents an intention to totally demolish the existing power structure. By separating these long serving SES officials from the organizations they have run for perhaps decades means that there will be a lot less resistance to reorganization. Many of these people will resign rather than accept the reassignment. That is a feature, not a bug. By making this move before he has his own appointees in place, Zinke is signaling to the agency and to Senate Democrats that he will not be deterred by intransigence.

The transfers that struck me were the Bureau of Indian Affairs positions. If there is a more corrupt, inept, and apathetic federal agency than BIA I really wish someone would point it out to me. BIA has resisted change of all types for decades, failing to serve either the Indians or the nation but doing quite well for themselves. Taking two of the top people out of there certainly clears the decks for action.

Zinke will, of course, still have to deal with these people after they are transferred but they will have been stripped of power and hubris and might be more willing to cooperate.


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