U.S. Department of the Interior

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U.S. Department of the Interior

The U.S. Department of the Interior was founded by an Act of Congress on March 3, 1849. A wide variety of functions were assigned to the "Home Department" as it was called at the time, including administration of the General Land Office which passed large tracts of western lands to homesteaders (294 million acres/119 million ha), to railroads (94 million acres/38 million ha), and to colleges and universities. In the twentieth-first century, the Department of the Interior has become the custodian of public lands and natural resources , and is now America's primary governmental conservation agency. The National Park Service , Bureau of Land Management , Bureau of Reclamation , Fish and Wildlife Service , Geological Survey , Office of Surface Mining , Reclamation and Enforcement, and Bureau of Mines are part of the Department. In addition the Department is responsible for American Indian reservation communities and for people living in island territories administered by the United States.

The Department's mandate is very broad, including such duties as: 1) administration of over 507 million acres (205 million ha) of federal public lands; 2) development and conservation of mineral and water resources ; 3) conservation and utilization of fish and wildlife resources; 4) coordination of federal and state recreation programs; 5) administration and preservation of America's scenic and historic areas; 6) reclamation of western arid lands through irrigation ; and 7) management of hydroelectric power systems.

Although many Department activities and programs have generated environmental controversy over the years, it is probably these last two activities that have been most contentious. In pursuit of these mandates, the Bureau of Reclamation, working with the Army Corps of Engineers , has constructed massive dams on rivers in the West. These dams are designed to provide water storage and electricity for western cities and farms, as well as to reduce downsteam flooding . However, these dams also have had severe impacts on ecosystems, significantly altering and, at times, devastating riverine habitats.

On balance, however, the programs and practices of the Department of the Interior probably do more environmental good than harm. Among the Department's positive actions and accomplishments during the past several years are: 1) establishment of 23 new refuges and waterfowl production areas in Florida and in Louisiana; 2) initiation of "Refuges 2003," a Fish and Wildlife Service effort aimed at planning management programs and policies for the next 1015 years on the nation's 472 national wildlife refuges; 3) implementation of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act to restore declining waterfowl populations and to conserve wetlands; 4) protection of 1,800 species on the List of Endangered and Threatened Species; 5) development and beginning implementation of a mitigation and enhancement plan to restore California's Kesterson Reservoir , which was closed due to high concentrations of selenium; 6) tripling the Coastal Barrier Resources System to 1.25 million acres (500,000 ha) over 1,200 mi (1,931 km) of shoreline including the Florida Keys, Great Lakes , Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands; 7) Establishment of a new Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement office in Ashland, Kentucky, for rapid response to abandoned mine land problems in need of reclamation on an emergency basis; 8) participation in filing 120 natural resource damage assessments in the period 19881991, the largest being the assessment of the Exxon Valdez accident in Prince William Sound , Alaska. The $1.1 billion settlement of this accident enabled the Federal Government to proceed with cleanup and restoration efforts.

[Malcolm T. Hepworth ]



The United States Government Manual, 1992/93. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992.


U.S. Department of the Interior, 1849 C. Street NW, Washington, D.C. USA 20240 (202) 208-3100, <http://www.doi.gov>