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The Department of Everything Else






Getting Organized

Western Emphasis

Nationwide Concerns

Early Problems

The Conservation Movement

Parks and the Park Service

The Geological Survey

Managing the Public Domain

Fish and Wildlife

Indians and the BIA

Territorial Affairs

current topic 20th Century Highlights

An Imperfect Anthology




Twentieth Century Headliners and Highlights
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Twentieth Century Headliners and Highlights

For most of its life, Interior has suffered or enjoyed (depending on one's perspective) relative anonymity among cabinet departments. Its very name, conveying only the vaguest impression of its functions, has contributed to its indistinct image. Occasionally during the present century, however, forceful or colorful Interior secretaries have brought unaccustomed publicity and prominence to the department.

Franklin K. Lane, who served from 1913 to 1920 under Woodrow Wilson, was such a leader. Previously a member of the Interstate Commerce Commission, the government's first regulatory body, Lane came to Interior with an activist outlook. Conservationists applauded his appointment, yet he was receptive to business interests and led some to fear that he would "give away everything in sight" in support of the war effort. [46]

Franklin K. Lane
Franklin K. Lane (1913-1920)

Lane took unusual interest in the internal welfare of his department. In his first year he organized the Home Club to promote fellowship and teamwork among Interior employees. Its quarters, the old Daniel Sickles house on Lafayette Square, was outfitted with a billiard room, card rooms, and "a suite of rooms set aside for the ladies." Movies, lectures, dances, and musicales were regular attractions. Within a year about 1700 employees had become members at 50 cents a month. Lane wrote of the club, "In this way I meet many of those who work with me whom I never would see otherwise and from the amount of work that the department is doing, which is increasing I am quite satisfied that it has helped to make the department more efficient." [47]

The department's efficiency may have been improved further by its move to a new headquarters. In 1917 it left the Patent Office building for the first structure built specifically to house Interior, filling the block bounded by 18th, 19th, E, and F streets northwest. Like the previous headquarters, the new building was not large enough for all Interior bureaus, so some, including the Patent Office and Pension Bureau, remained where they were. More functional than aesthetic, the structure lacks the classical grandeur of its predecessor and has never ranked among Washington's architectural attractions.

2nd Interior Building
The Second Interior Building, 1917-1936

Interior also acquired a bit of heraldry in 1917. As the National Geographic Society readied a magazine feature on the flags of the federal departments, it discovered that Interior lacked one. Dr. Gilbert H. Grosvenor, president of the society, collaborated with Secretary Lane to remedy this deficiency. [48] The resulting flag design featured a bison, or buffalo. This distinctive symbol of the department's western focus was also adopted for the Interior seal, formerly depicting a routine federal eagle. The buffalo was twice replaced by other insignia: from 1923 to 1929 the eagle resumed its perch on the flag and seal, and in 1968-69 a stylized pair of hands framing symbols of the sun, mountains, and water was adopted to represent the department's diverse responsibilities. But the eagle was trite, and the modern abstraction (by a New York design firm) assaulted sentiment and tradition. Unrepresentative and anachronistic as it may be, there has been no more talk of killing the buffalo.

DOI seals
Some former Interior seals

Albert B. Fall, President Warren G. Harding's Interior Secretary from 1921 to 1923, left a less appealing legacy. A bombastic New Mexican who affected a black, broad-brimmed Stetson and was reputed to carry a pistol, Fall owed his cabinet post to his poker-playing friendship with Harding during their prior service together in the Senate. [49] Soon after taking office he got the Secretary of the Navy to transfer the Navy's oil reserve lands to Interior custody. Then he secretly leased the Teapot Dome Reserve in Wyoming to Harry F. Sinclair and the Elk Hills Reserve in California to Edward L. Doheny, later receiving from the two oilmen more than $400,000 and some blooded livestock for his ranch.

After Fall's resignation (for unrelated reasons), a Senate investigation exposed the leases and the payments. Fall was ultimately convicted of accepting bribes, and in 1931 he began serving a one-year sentence, making him the only cabinet officer to be convicted and imprisoned for a felony committed in office. During the lengthy congressional and court proceedings the name "Teapot Dome" caught the public fancy and became synonymous with corruption in high places.

Hubert Work, Fall's successor, had an unusual background for a cabinet officer. After receiving a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he built a successful practice in Colorado, served as an Army Medical Corps colonel during World War I, and became president of the American Medical Association in 1921. Simultaneously he became so active in Republican Party affairs that he was rewarded by appointment as Postmaster General in 1922.

Named Interior Secretary the following year, Work labored effectively to restore Interior's reputation and the morale of its employees as Teapot Dome came to light. He reorganized much of the department for efficiency and economy, adopting principles then being applied in business. He paid particular attention to reclamation and oil policies, while his professional expertise led him to increase the health activities of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Dr. Work attended President Harding upon his death in office in August 1923, then stayed on under Calvin Coolidge. Having become particularly close to Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, he resigned in 1928 to run Hoover's successful presidential campaign that year. [50]

As President, Hoover picked another physician to head Interior. Ray Lyman Wilbur had attended Stanford University with the future President before advancing to medical school and subsequent prominence in his profession. At the age of 40 he became president of Stanford, where he compiled an admirable record punctuated by frequent calls to public service. Like Work he was in attendance at President Harding's death, which came during Wilbur's presidency of the American Medical Association.

Preferring to remain at Stanford, Wilbur accepted his old friend's call to Interior reluctantly but entered the cabinet post with characteristic vigor. Eschewing grandeur, he chose a small office--"The Secretary's Cubby hole," he called it. He declared war on bureaucratic indecision: "If you're 80 percent sure--act," he told an assistant. During his four years on the job Wilbur effectively advanced Hoover's personal conservation agenda, symbolized most dramatically by what became Hoover Dam. [51]

Franklin D. Roosevelt
President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaking at dedication
of present Interior Building, April 16, 1936

Ickes and Roosevelt
Harold L. Ickes (1933-1946) and President Roosevelt at dedication ceremony

Interior's tarnished image from Fall and Teapot Dome was keenly felt by Harold L. Ickes, a crusading Chicago lawyer who became Franklin D. Roosevelt's Interior Secretary in 1933 and stayed nearly 13 years--far longer than any other. One historian has aptly termed him "a remarkably complex and profoundly suspicious man who thrived on rancorous debate and unending controversy" and "an administrator who often got what he wanted by calculated intimidation and vituperation." [52] Mistrusting his inherited staff, Ickes had an investigator (Louis R. Glavis, Ballinger's accuser) tap the telephones of suspected employees and personally patrolled the corridors of the Interior Building in search of slackers. But "Honest Harold's" integrity was unquestioned, and no further scandal sullied the department's reputation during an era of greatly expanded responsibilities. One of his bureau chiefs later called him both "the meanest man who ever sat in a Cabinet office in Washington" and "the best Secretary of the Interior we ever had." [53]

Interior under Ickes participated actively in Depression relief efforts. All its land-managing bureaus sponsored Civilian Conservation Corps camps and planned projects for that innovative public service employment program between 1933 and 1942. The department was also directly affected by the other hat Ickes wore during this period as Administrator of the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, popularly known as the Public Works Administration or PWA. Not coincidentally, one of the first projects funded by this major construction agency was another new Interior Building.

The new and current Interior headquarters was begun in August 1935 and rushed to completion by the end of 1936. Designed by Waddy B. Wood, the massive seven-story limestone structure occupies two full blocks between C and E streets northwest, directly south of its predecessor. Ickes involved himself closely in its planning, design, and construction, approving such innovative features as central air conditioning, escalators, and a gymnasium. Its three miles of corridors are punctuated by colorful murals and bas reliefs depicting departmental themes, commissioned by the Treasury Department's Section of Painting and Sculpture. A tunnel connects with the former Interior building, which became headquarters for the General Services Administration but continued to house some Interior functions until the mid-1970s.

The quintessential empire builder, Ickes maneuvered mightily to aggrandize Interior at the expense of his cabinet counterparts, notably Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace. The U.S. Forest Service was key to his envisioned "Department of Conservation," along with the civil functions of the Army's Corps of Engineers and other resource-oriented bureaus. The Forest Service and its allies had resisted similar transfer proposals since the early 1920s, and Wallace countered with a request for the national parks, public domain, and other of Interior's "organic resources." After negotiations with Wallace broke down in 1935, Ickes asked Congress to change the name of his department. Agriculture and the Forest Service, well aware of his ultimate objective, fought his "Department of Conservation" bill. Reacting with typical rancor, Ickes maligned their motives at a congressional hearing: "Now it may be that they do not want us to change from the Department of the Interior so they can still throw Secretary Fall in our face. . . . No one is going to tie that dead cat on my neck and get away with it." [54]

Ickes took renewed hope from the report of the President's Committee on Administrative Management, chaired by Louis Brownlow, in 1937. Its wide-ranging plan for executive branch reorganization assigned natural resource functions to Interior. By implication this included the Forest Service. President Roosevelt sent the plan to Congress with his endorsement. But the Forest Service lobbied against it behind the scenes and enlisted vigorous opposition from Gifford Pinchot, the Society of American Foresters, timber companies, and conservation organizations. To Ickes bitter disappointment, the pragmatic Roosevelt was unwilling to jeopardize less controversial aspects of the reorganization by insisting on the transfer. The Secretary was forced to settle for Agriculture's Bureau of Biological Survey and wildlife refuges and the Commerce Department's Bureau of Fisheries.

Ickes was not the last to attempt redefinition and enlargement of Interior's focus. In 1949 a task force of the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government (the Hoover Commission) recommended a Department of Natural Resources--a reconstitution of Interior including the Forest Service. But the commission declined to adopt the recommendation. In 1973 Secretary Rogers C. B. Morton proposed a Department of Energy and Natural Resources, incorporating Interior and such additional agencies as the Atomic Energy Commission. Instead, Congress established a separate Energy Research and Development Administration en route to creating a new cabinet department for that national preoccupation of the 1970s. The Department of Energy, established in 1977, took from Interior the Alaska, Bonneville, Southeastern, and Southwestern Power administrations and certain functions of the Mines and Reclamation bureaus.

Secretary Oscar L. Chapman was practically an Interior career man. Although a few other Secretaries have had prior service in the department, none has approached his 20 years there. He came aboard as an Assistant Secretary in 1933 and displayed his fortitude as one of the few top administrators to survive the entire tenure of Harold Ickes. When President Harry S Truman replaced Ickes with Julius A. Krug in 1946, Chapman advanced to Under Secretary. In 1950 Truman rewarded him with the top job, which he filled for the last three years of that Democratic administration. Unlike Ickes, who had thoroughly dominated the department, Chapman favored decentralized authority and was willing to let his bureau chiefs make key decisions affecting their programs.

During the Eisenhower years, New Deal governmental activism gave way to a greater emphasis on private enterprise. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's secretaries of the Interior, Douglas McKay (1953-56) and Fred A. Seaton (1956-61), reflected this emphasis in policies aimed at bringing private power companies into partnership with the federal power administrations established under Secretary Ickes. But the Republican restoration brought no radical reversal of Interior programs. The greatest divestiture of the department's responsibilities in this period came when Alaska and Hawaii advanced from territorial status to statehood in 1959.

As a congressman and delegate to the 1960 Democratic Convention from Arizona, Stewart L. Udall helped deliver his state to John F. Kennedy and was rewarded by the Interior cabinet post. Secretary Udall, whose youth and vigor fit the Kennedy image, translated the early stirrings of the modern environmental movement into a departmental mission.

Udall's 1963 book The Quiet Crisis (published a year after Silent Spring) traced the history of American land use and exploitation. "America today stands poised on a pinnacle of wealth and power, yet we live in a land of vanishing beauty, of increasing ugliness, of shrinking open space, and of an overall environment that is diminished daily by pollution and noise and blight," he wrote. "This, in brief, is the quiet conservation crisis of the 1960's." He went on to advocate increased government planning and land use controls to meet the crisis: "We must act decisively--and soon--if we are to assert the people's right to clean air and water, to open space, to well-designed urban areas, to mental and physical health." [55]

Udall and Johnson
Stewart L. Udall (1961-1969) with Lady Bird Johnson on Snake River trip, 1964

During his eight years in office, spanning the Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations (1961-69), Udall pressed successfully for much environmental legislation, including the Federal Clean Air Act of 1963, the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, and amendments strengthening the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1956. Establishment of four national seashores along the Atlantic coast, major pollution abatement efforts on Lake Erie and the Hudson, Delaware, and Potomac rivers, and a highly publicized National Capital beautification campaign sponsored by Lady Bird Johnson were among several Udall initiatives expanding Interior's role and influence beyond its traditional western focus.

When President-elect Richard Nixon named Gov. Walter J. Hickel of Alaska to succeed Udall, conservationists raised an outcry. There was nothing in Hickel's pro-development record to recommend him as a defender of the environment. As Secretary, however, Hickel proved receptive to their concerns. On January 28, 1969, four days after he took office, an oil well drilled under an Interior lease in the Santa Barbara Channel blew out and created a huge slick covering the beachfront and thousands of sea birds. Hickel immediately ordered a drilling shutdown and suspended all Outer Continental Shelf leasing while the department prepared stricter drilling regulations. The disaster rallied support for the National Environmental Policy Act, passed at year's end, requiring all federal agencies to analyze the environmental effects of their actions.

After revealing sympathy for youthful Vietnam War protesters in a manner suggesting disloyalty to the administration, Hickel lost his job in November 1970. President Nixon replaced him with Rep. Rogers C. B. Morton of Maryland, to date this century's only Interior Secretary from the Atlantic seaboard. Somewhat ironically, Morton found his predecessor's distant state one of the major concerns of his four-year, three-month tenure.

Rogers C.B. Morton (1971-1975)

Alaska statehood ended Interior's oversight of Alaska's government, but the vast majority of the state was still federal land, most under Interior jurisdiction. The management and disposition of this land became subject to great controversy among the state government, Alaska native groups, economic development interests, and conservationists--especially after the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of December 18, 1971, primarily a legislative solution to the native claims, also sought to satisfy conservationists by providing for major additions to the national park, forest, wildlife refuge, and wild and scenic rivers systems. Two years later, as the act specified, Secretary Morton temporarily withdrew and proposed to Congress more than 83 million acres for the four conservation systems.

Beset by competing interests, Congress failed to agree upon these or alternate proposals before expiration of the withdrawals in December 1978.

To hold the lands until the next Congress could act, President Jimmy Carter's Interior Secretary, former Idaho governor Cecil D. Andrus, prevailed upon Carter to reserve many of them as national monuments under authority of the 1906 Antiquities Act. This bold stroke enraged many Alaskans but served its intended purpose. Further prodded by the election in November 1980 of a President and Congress less inclined to remove so much land from economic development, the outgoing Congress and President compromised on the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of December 2, 1980. One of the most important conservation enactments of the 20th century, "ANILCA" added more than 47 million acres to Interior's National Park System and nearly 54 million acres to its National Wildlife Refuge System.

During most of Interior's history the name of the Secretary has ranked low in public recognition. The tenure of Harold Ickes, whose outspokenness seldom escaped the press, was one exception to this general anonymity. The much shorter tenure of James G. Watt, who served President Ronald Reagan from the beginning of his administration in 1981 to November 1983, was another.

Like Ickes, Secretary Watt was a strong administrator of unquestioned integrity who did not shrink from controversy in pressing his program. There the similarity ended. Ickes was a New Deal expansionist, while Watt represented the Reagan philosophy of less government regulation. This bent inevitably pitted him against those wanting increased intervention for environmental protection. Pursuing his agenda in high-profile fashion, he became the administration's best-known cabinet officer and a lightning rod for its liberal critics. Surely less abrasive than Ickes, Watt had the misfortune to serve at a time when undiplomatic remarks were less readily forgiven. A penchant for such remarks--which invariably attracted heavy publicity and sparked considerable controversy--finally triggered his resignation.

James G. Watt (1981-1983) at Yellowstone National Park, 1981

Watt was succeeded for a year by William P. Clark, a California confidante of President Reagan who had most recently been his Assistant for National Security Affairs. Then came Donald Paul Hodel, an Oregonian who had learned his way around Interior as head of the Bonneville Power Administration and as Under Secretary before a stint as Secretary of Energy. Clark and Hodel continued to pursue Reagan's agenda for Interior with greater finesse in meeting opposing interests. Hodel was criticized by environmentalists for pursuing offshore oil leasing and recommending oil leasing in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but he won their praise for his "Take Pride in America" campaign and an imaginative proposal to restore Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Hodel served nearly four years to the end of the Reagan administration, when President George Bush made former New Mexico congressman Manuel Lujan, Jr., the 46th Secretary of the Interior.

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