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If confirmed by the Senate as head of the U.S. Department of Interior, Congresswoman Deb Haaland would become the first Native American to hold a cabinet position in the history of the United States. She would also become the first Native American to oversee the management and conservation of U.S. natural resources, wildlife and cultural heritage, including 480 million acres of public lands, plus 85 million acres under the U.S. National Parks system.

She would also oversee the historically politically charged relationship between the U.S. government and Native American tribes.

Within this sweeping context, Haaland’s progressive agenda is leaving many in the tourism and travel industry focused on outdoor spaces emboldened after years of worry under a Trump Administration whose policies threatened public lands.

Haaland’s nomination comes on the heels of the Skift Short-Term & Outdoor Summit and the panel discussion surrounding the surge in outdoor tourism on Public Lands since Covid, and the importance of including tribes in the co-management of tourism in the American West.

“It’s an incredible step to have a native woman run the agency who oversees the management of public and tribal lands,” Len Necefer, founder of Natives Outdoors, who sat on the panel, told Skift. “Hopefully it will be the first step toward honoring treaty obligations and honoring the trust-responsibility agreement that the federal government has with native nations.”

Haaland’s background as a single mom who once survived on food stamps and continues to pay her law school loans makes her one of the most relatable individuals in Congress, but her track record as a land conservation and climate change activist who has consistently stood up for outdoor recreational access presents a promising future for the sustainable management and growth of America’s booming nature-based tourism. Skift attempted to reach Congresswoman Haaland but did not receive a response at publication time.

“I think she brings such a unique lived experience to this work that’s unlike any previous interior secretary in history and that that also bodes for a change and a different approach,” Charlotte Overby, senior program manager for Conservation Lands Foundation, told Skift. “We’re learning particularly in the west that public lands are living, cultural landscapes, and I think that she will be very in tune to that and as well as those lands having incredible ecological resources and value [.]”

An Advocate of the Great American Outdoors

“My dad was a U.S. Marine and no matter where we were stationed he made sure we spent time outdoors; time with my dad in the mountains or on the beach, and time with my grandparents in the cornfield out in Laguna taught me to respect the earth and to value our resources,” Haaland said during her nomination acceptance speech.

Although fairly new to Congress, Haaland’s track record as chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands speaks volumes in terms of her priorities, including obtaining funding for the protection and maintenance of public lands and parks, as well as for outdoor recreation jobs.

One of her most significant achievements is the Great American Outdoors Act, which she helped shepherd and became law in August 2020. It provides permanent funding for two programs — the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund — which will, in part, “support the enhancement of parks and recreational access for local communities throughout the country, support the recreation economy which contributes $778 billion in national economic output annually and supports $5.2 million American jobs, and allocate $22 billion to federal land management agencies to address deferred maintenance on public lands[.]”

A year prior to that, Haaland had introduced the bipartisan ANTIQUITIES Act to protect national monuments from unlawful attack in response to President Trump’s push to eliminate two million acres of Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Haaland’s provisions — including the designation of over 200,000 acres of public lands in New Mexico as wilderness and aiming to “preserve opportunities for hunting, tourism, scientific research, conservation, and cultural uses” — were signed into law as part of the Dingell Conservation, Management and Recreation Act.

“We’re really looking forward to working with her and her staff and the entire department on reinstating those protections for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase,” Overby said. “I expect that to happen quickly, I think there’s been a real urgency for that and we’ll see that happen.”

Haaland also co-introduced the bipartisan Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation (SOAR) bill in the House, with Republican Rep. John Curtish, an initiative that had been in the works for years among outdoor advocates. The bill aims to streamline the permitting process so that outdoor recreation on public lands is more accessible to everyone including guides, outfitters, community groups and educational organizations. It received overwhelming support from the outdoor recreation industry and conservation communities, including from the American Outdoor Association, the Outdoor Industry Association, REI, and the American Mountain Guides Association, among others. In July 2020, the House bill passed onto the house floor and optimism is running high that it will soon advance to the Senate.

Nonetheless, the work ahead is significant, notably in the management of Native American communities that have yet to embrace a transition to outdoor tourism.

“There’s a number of tribes who continue to rely on fossil fuel development as a major source of economic development,” Necefer told Skift. “[W]hile I believe many of them are excited to see a native person in this job, I do think they might have some hesitation about the new administration’s policies.”

A Critical Voice at a Critical Time

Four years under the current U.S. administration have weakened American outdoors policy and government-tribal relationships, from no climate action and weakened federal laws and tribal participation in major decisions involving indigenous lands, to rolling back protections of sacred tribal monuments and allowing for resource extractions on in wildlife sanctuaries — including, most recently, fast track approval for large scale mining and energy projects before January rolls around.

Necefer fears that undoing these current policies will take time and hopes activists will be patient with Haaland and her new administration. “My worry is that things won’t change quickly enough or policy legacies from the previous administration will haunt the new one.”

In the meantime, optimism is reigning among those who followed Haaland’s advocacy before her congressional years, such as Tom Solomon, co-coordinator for 350 New Mexico, a climate action group.

“She is a fierce champion for preserving the land, our ecosystems, our climate and for justice,” Solomon wrote Skift. “I’m confident from her history and public positions that she will support the sustainable uses of our public lands, for outdoor recreation, tourism, etc, and to improve the treatment of the native tribes who live on those lands and have eons of experience in treating them with respect.”

Photo Credit: Congresswoman Deb Haaland is the first Native American nominated to lead the interior department. Deb for Congress Media Resources