Friday, May 29, 2009

Limerick on the Interior Department

If ever there was a "sick man" of the federal bureaucracy, it would be the Department of the Interior. Some quite estimable figures have served as Secretary, including James R. Garfield, Walter L. Fisher, and of course Harold Ickes; still, in historical accounts it usually figures as a nest of persistent, intractable dysfunction. (Did anyone else hear echoes of Daniel Carpenter's chapter on the department in The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy while watching the appearances of Secretary Ken Salazar and his hat on the Daily Show earlier this month?) Even under Ickes, for example, a very able departmental solicitor, the New Dealer Warner Gardner, was amazed how often "some . . . enlightened agreement or compromise among the conflicting interests represented in the Interior Department" was ignored by the Bureau of Reclamation, did "nothing about it other than to explain to the Congress . . . that the department wanted to do that, but of course a sensible person would know better."

All of which is to say that it is really quite thrilling that the remarkable historical imagination of Patricia Limerick, University of Colorado, Boulder, has been brought to bear on the problem of bureaucracy at the Department of the Interior. Her talk, Parks and Politics: Saving the American Environment, from July 22, 2008, is downloadable from the Gilder Lehrman Institute's website. here is the abstract:
Bureaucrats, University of Colorado professor of history Patricia Limerick argues, are often the most overlooked (at best) or reviled (at worst) of government officials, but they wield tremendous powers that shape Americans’ daily lives. Nowhere is this more true than in the bureaucracy of the U.S. Department of the Interior. A wide-ranging agency charged with both protecting land and promoting its use, the Department of the Interior implements federal law over millions of acres of land and mediates the claims of environmental, mining, foresting, farming, and ranching interests, among others. Bureaucracies like the Department of the Interior may be boring, Limerick argues, but historians cannot ignore their impact on the development of the American West.
Also interesting is the description of her summer seminar for teachers, offered under Gilder Lehrman's aegis, Visions of the American Environment.