The Plot to Loot America’s Wilderness

The Plot to Loot America’s Wilderness

The Plot to Loot America’s Wilderness

A little-known bureaucrat named James Cason is reshaping the Department of the Interior.


One day in Mid-March, James Cason, the associate deputy secretary at the Department of the Interior, convened an impromptu meeting of the senior staff of the Bureau of Land Management. Cason, whose office is on the sixth floor, rarely wandered the halls, and some career civil servants still had never met him. A soft-spoken and unassuming man, Cason has cycled in and out of Republican administrations since the early 1980s and has largely avoided public attention. But people who have worked with him know him as a highly effective administrator and a disciple of some of the department’s most notorious anti-environment leaders in previous years—a “hatchet man,” in the words of one former DOI employee who worked with him during the George W. Bush administration.

About 30 employees were ushered into a conference room, where Cason announced that Kristin Bail, acting director of the BLM, would be replaced by Mike Nedd. The move itself wasn’t all that surprising: Bail, who came from a conservation background, had been appointed in the final days of the Obama administration to serve in a temporary capacity; Nedd, who had been assistant director for energy, minerals, and realty management since 2007, was viewed as better positioned to implement the new administration’s pro-industry agenda.

But the way Cason handled the meeting sent a stark message. According to two people who were present, he delivered what appeared to be hastily prepared remarks thanking Bail for her service but telling her that she was no longer needed in the position. One employee, who has since left the DOI, said it was unclear whether Bail had been told beforehand of her demotion. “It was one of the most awkward, disrespectful things I’ve ever seen,” the former employee said. The spectacle amounted to a kind of public dismissal—and a warning shot. The meeting ended as abruptly as it had begun, with employees left staring at their seats. By the end of the day, Bail was carrying her things out of her office in a box and looking for another place to sit.

Bail’s transfer was the opening salvo in an unprecedented restructuring of the DOI. Three months later, in what some department staffers now call the “Thursday-night massacre,” Cason sent memos to more than two dozen of the DOI’s highest-ranking civil servants informing them of reassignments; they had 15 days to accept the new positions or retire. The Office of the Inspector General is currently investigating how the transfers were determined; some employees believe they were designed to push out long-serving staff as part of a department-wide purge, and that climate scientists in particular were targeted.

Cason, who once described himself as the department’s “regulatory czar,” has also overseen the dismantling of rules governing energy development on public lands. The DOI is poised to open up millions of acres to drilling and mining—from Utah’s red-rock country to the frigid, perilous waters off Alaska’s coast—while stripping away basic environmental protections and reducing transparency. Across the Trump administration, the new mantra is “energy dominance”—a vision of the world in which the United States will amplify its influence with a dramatic expansion of oil, gas, and coal production, whatever the environmental costs.

The axing of regulations and personnel is occurring with remarkable speed. In contrast to other federal departments mired by inept leadership in the Trump era, a small group of seasoned insiders has kept things humming along at the Department of the Interior, Cason chief among them. In the early months of the administration, according to one former DOI employee, there seemed to be few decisions, no matter how small, that didn’t cross his desk.

“From what I can tell, Jim Cason is running the show,” the former employee said. “I think he’s overseeing everything.” In addition to orchestrating the personnel reassignments and chairing the regulatory-reform task force that has rewritten or eliminated many Obama-era policies, Cason has been tasked with reviewing every grant or cooperative agreement of $100,000 or more, as well as any pending decisions with “nationwide, regional, or statewide impact.” He wrote the Federal Register notice announcing the department’s controversial review of 27 national monuments, and he has been granted virtual carte blanche to set policy as it relates to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Cason’s return to the DOI doesn’t surprise Jim Cubie, who was chief counsel to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in 1989, when Leahy oversaw an Agriculture Committee hearing on Cason’s nomination to a top environmental post in the George H.W. Bush administration. Cason’s track record so alarmed the committee that he was eventually forced to withdraw his name from consideration. Now he’s back in a position that doesn’t require Senate approval. “He’ll do a lot of damage,” Cubie predicted.

Cason is one of only a handful of political appointees with deep knowledge of the Department of the Interior. (The DOI declined to make Cason available for an interview.) He faithfully carried out the agendas of two of the most controversial interior secretaries in recent memory—James Watt and Gale Norton. From 1985 to 1989, during the Reagan administration, Cason was deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management; in that capacity, he worked closely with Steven Griles, a former coal lobbyist and the chief architect of some of the most environmentally destructive policies of the Reagan years. Griles helped to engineer the regulatory changes that facilitated mountaintop-removal mining, and he interfered with a Fish and Wildlife Service report on the potential environmental damage caused by coastal drilling. As head of the DOI’s Office of Surface Mining in the early 1980s, Griles also failed to collect tens of millions of dollars in civil penalties owed by companies that had broken environmental laws.

Throughout this period, Cason served as Griles’s right-hand man, according to a former congressional staffer familiar with his record. “He learned well at Griles’s knee about how to get stuff done,” the staffer said. The two became close friends; Griles was best man at Cason’s wedding in 1990. And in 2001, when Griles returned to the department under George W. Bush after more than a decade of lobbying for coal companies and other special interests, Cason joined him as his associate deputy. According to a former DOI employee who worked with Cason during the Bush administration, “Griles would have whatever idea, and Jim would figure out how to get it implemented. He’s quite effective at doing that. He was known as Griles’s hatchet man.”

But unlike Griles, who was sentenced to 10 months in prison after lying to Congress about his ties to the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Cason has largely avoided the public eye. His personal style is exceedingly restrained, particularly in contrast with more flamboyant and controversial colleagues like Griles, who was known for being a brash talker with a volatile temper. Cason has a monotone way of speaking; he often dresses in a subdued blue suit and tie and seems to go out of his way to be agreeable. In an appearance on C-SPAN in 2005, as the Abramoff investigations were gaining momentum, a caller described Cason as a “Republican toady” and attacked the DOI for its policies toward Native Americans. Cason replied evenly, “OK, well, that’s certainly a good point of view too.”

Even when not behind the scenes at the DOI, Cason maintained a low profile. He’s never worked as a registered lobbyist. During the Clinton administration, he lived in Western New York and was vice president of risk management at a company that manufactures ceramic-fiber products for industrial applications. More recently, he’s done consulting work for Booz Allen Hamilton and Kelly Anderson & Associates (now KAA Federal Solutions), a business-management firm that works with federal and industrial clients. On his financial-disclosure form, submitted in July, Cason provided so few details about the contracting work he’d done with the Quapaw tribe in Oklahoma that, after queries by ProPublica, the DOI was forced to submit a revised version. In it, Cason revealed that over a five-month period in 2016, he’d earned $50,000 doing “research” for the tribe. (The department’s ethics lawyer called the omission an “oversight.”)

KAA chief executive officer Tim Vigotsky, who hired Cason in 2012, describes him as a policy wonk who knows the DOI better than anyone. “There’s not a lot of flash,” Vigotsky said. “He works long hours—whatever it takes.” Because Cason wasn’t registered as a lobbyist at Booz Allen or Kelly Anderson, it’s unclear who his clients in the energy sector might have been. Vigotsky called Kelly Anderson’s list a “who’s who” of the industry but wouldn’t reveal the names of private clients. Much of the firm’s work involves providing assistance to companies seeking federal contracts. On his résumé, Cason stated that, in addition to providing consulting support for Native American, commercial, and federal clients, he helped to “network access to government officials.”

A window into what has otherwise been a veiled career opened in 1989, when Cason was nominated to serve as assistant secretary for natural resources and environment at the Department of Agriculture under George H.W. Bush. Few people had ever heard of Cason, who was only 35 when his confirmation hearings took place. The position is typically filled by noncontroversial policy experts, and the hearings are rarely the stuff of high-stakes political theater. But Cason’s nomination was unusually contentious, in large part because of his former boss—James Watt, one of the most polarizing and unpopular interior secretaries ever to hold the position.

As the DOI’s head under Ronald Reagan, Watt was known for his staunch support of property rights and for his attempts to sell millions of acres of public lands to drilling and mining interests; he resigned in 1983, after stating that a coal advisory commission he’d established was balanced because it included “a black…a woman, two Jews, and a cripple.” In his opening remarks at Cason’s hearing, Senator Leahy wasted little time in drawing a parallel between Cason and Watt. “Frankly, we do not need a James Watt clone in this position,” Leahy said. Jim Cubie, Leahy’s counsel, said they’d heard from a number of sources that “this guy’s going to be a disaster…. Anybody who was a Watt acolyte was trouble.”

In written testimony, Cason said he’d barely gotten to know Watt and “could not fairly or knowledgeably compare or contrast our philosophies.” Yet Cason revealed that his philosophy was in fact closely aligned with Watt’s when he faced a series of questions about his decision to approve the transfer of tens of thousands of acres of public land at below-market rates in 1986. The episode involved the sale of oil-shale claims to energy companies at $2.50 an acre; weeks later, some of the same land was sold to private developers at 800 times the original price, reaping a windfall of $37 million for the energy companies. Asked by Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) whether the sale was “in the public interest,” Cason replied: “I think it is in the public interest to assure that we properly address private-property rights.” In that single sentence, Cason summed up Watt’s worldview.

But the hearing wasn’t only a referendum on Watt—it demonstrated that Cason put his own stamp on a number of decisions that heavily favored industry. Cason’s involvement in the alleged suppression of a BLM report on the dangers to the spotted owl dominated press accounts of the hearings. At the time, there was great concern among conservationists that the logging of old-growth forests in Oregon would lead to the owl’s demise. Indeed, several studies carried out in the 1980s demonstrated that the forests were key to the species’s survival. The BLM report commissioned by Cason found that the spotted owl would be imperiled if logging continued. Cason later claimed that the report didn’t live up to the department’s scientific standards—but several individuals involved in the review testified that Cason simply disagreed with their conclusions and had asked the DOI to bury the report. After news of the report leaked to the press, Cason had the DOI release what many felt was a watered-down version of the original. (“Jim Cason is a seasoned Department of the Interior official who brings decades of government, private sector, and personal experience to the position,” a DOI spokesperson wrote in response to questions about his record, including the owl report. “We are lucky to have him.”)

Cason had also pushed through a series of industry-friendly measures in the final weeks of the Reagan administration. He lowered the royalties paid for coal mined on public lands; authorized a rule that made it possible for companies to mine in national parks or on Forest Service land (a rule considered so over the top that it was quickly withdrawn); traveled to Colorado to encourage—yet again—the transfer of thousands of acres of oil-shale claims at rock-bottom prices; and brokered an agreement with several major oil and gas companies that essentially undermined the federal government’s authority to audit royalty payments. Not only did Cason reach the latter deal without consulting state or tribal officials, whose constituents stood to lose out on millions in annual payments, but he also signed the agreement on letterhead from the industry’s attorneys. R. Max Peterson, then the executive vice president of the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, described Cason’s actions as “an inexcusable betrayal of the public trust.”

Even Republican members of the traditionally conservative Senate Agriculture Committee had their doubts. Summing up Cason’s years at the DOI, Indiana Senator Richard Lugar said: “The whole department, and yourself as part of that department, were overly solicitous of business and industry points of view.” Several weeks later, realizing that he didn’t have enough votes to secure the nomination, Cason withdrew his name.

All of that must have seemed like a distant memory this past summer, when Cason addressed a roomful of industry executives at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s annual energy summit in Denver. He spoke alongside Gale Norton, who had been the interior secretary for much of George W. Bush’s administration. Cason’s current post is the same one he held under Norton—but this time around, according to interviews with more than a half-dozen current and former DOI employees, he wields significantly more power. (Norton, who took a position with Royal Dutch Shell after leaving office in 2006, now runs her own consulting firm—Norton Regulatory Strategies—and works closely with the oil and gas industry.)

With a list of the summit’s major sponsors—BP, Anadarko, Noble Energy—projected on the wall behind him, Cason explained that Donald Trump’s win in November marked a profound shift in direction. Though few would describe the Department of the Interior, even under President Obama, as unfriendly to oil and gas producers, Cason declared that the Trump administration had inherited “an anti-energy bias” and a “preservationist thought process” that needed rooting out.

While the DOI has often struggled to balance its dual mandate of conservation and resource development, the scales have now tipped decisively in favor of the oil and gas industry. As a candidate, Trump promised to “unleash America’s $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural-gas reserves, plus hundreds of years in clean-coal reserves”—a grandiose statement that has nonetheless become a kind of blueprint for his Department of the Interior. The long-held goal of “energy independence”—a stock phrase used by every administration at least since the Carter years—has been replaced by one of “energy dominance.” Trump officials believe that achieving it requires an aggressive push for increased access to public lands, including national monuments and offshore oil and gas reserves.

The DOI, as the largest landowner in the United States—managing roughly 500 million acres, one-fifth of the country’s landmass—is at the heart of this effort. The department also administers millions of acres in offshore oil and gas reserves. Trump has already reversed an Obama-era ban on drilling along part of the Atlantic coast and in the environmentally sensitive waters around Alaska. Now, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Republicans in Congress are seeking to fulfill one of the industry’s long-sought goals: opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the largest unexplored and undeveloped onshore basin in the United States. In December, the BLM will offer approximately 10.3 million acres of land in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve for oil and gas leasing. And next spring, the department will hold the largest oil- and gas-lease sale in the country’s history when it auctions off some 77 million acres of offshore reserves in the Gulf of Mexico.

Recently, the DOI announced that it would be running its operations more like a business, with the primary objective of generating revenue through energy production. According to a July report in Bloomberg News, Zinke is pushing to “retool the agency into a federal profit center.” The DOI’s climate-change webpage has undergone a makeover, too. Sometime between February and April, the department replaced a lengthy informational page with two short paragraphs describing the DOI’s preservation duties; the phrase “climate change” appears just once. And in April, the BLM—which is tasked with overseeing oil and gas leasing on federal land—changed the image on its home page from one of a couple of backpackers looking out onto a scenic landscape to a shot of a massive coal seam in Wyoming (an image that has since been removed).

In Denver, Cason reiterated that the DOI was more interested in facilitating energy development than regulating it; he told the roomful of oil and gas executives that they represented “a very important industry for the Department of Interior and the administration.” About a month after the conference, the DOI submitted a draft of its strategic vision for the next five years to the Office of Management and Budget. According to a copy of the plan obtained by The Nation, the department’s priorities include accelerating the exploitation of “vast amounts” of untapped energy reserves on public lands. The outline makes no mention of climate change—a phrase that appeared dozens of times in the previous strategic plan.

In October, the DOI released a report detailing the burdens on energy development and recommending sweeping changes that would undermine its own basic regulatory authority. The high-profile targets included a 2015 rule requiring rudimentary safeguards for fracking on public lands, as well as a conservation plan for the imperiled sage grouse. The report also raised the possibility of eliminating the federally required land-management plans that might limit drilling in certain areas; the conditions placed on development that affects endangered species or critical habitat; and even the collection of basic data related to energy production, which critics see as an attempt to muddy an already opaque process. Jeremy Nichols of the advocacy group Wild Earth Guardians called the proposed elimination of these common-sense measures “shocking even for this administration.”

The Department of the Interior is made up of nine bureaus, including the BLM and the Fish and Wildlife Service, with 70,000 employees and state and regional offices across the country. Secretary Zinke, a former Navy SEAL and one-term US congressman, has no experience managing such a large, decentralized bureaucracy, and he has relied heavily on his political appointees to run the department’s day-to-day operations. With Cason at the helm, a small circle of insiders orchestrated the aggressive deregulatory agenda and the unprecedented reshuffling of career staff.

“Cason is really an administrator,” a DOI employee who has known him since the George W. Bush administration told me. “He understands how to run an organization.” The position Cason now holds—associate deputy secretary—was created especially for him when he joined the Bush administration, most likely because of fears that he would not make it through another round of confirmation hearings. “They didn’t even try for a nomination, because they knew it would be dead on arrival,” said another former DOI employee who worked closely with Cason at the time.

In his remarks in Denver, Cason said it was evident from day one that career employees needed “an attitude adjustment.” New leadership, he continued, would force them to “adopt a different way of looking at things.” (In a recent speech before the National Petroleum Council, Interior Secretary Zinke described “30 percent” of DOI employees as “not loyal to the flag.”) As a member of the Executive Resources Board, which is responsible for senior-executive-level reassignments, Cason has overseen a series of personnel changes that appear designed to enhance the administration’s pro-oil-and-gas orientation. Under Zinke, the ERB is made up entirely of political appointees, despite strong recommendations from the Office of Personnel Management that the board include a mix of political and career employees “to provide…a balanced perspective.” According to Elizabeth Klein, who occupied Cason’s role in the Obama administration and served on the ERB for part of that time, there was a rough split between civil servants and political appointees.

The “Thursday-night massacre” occurred on June 15, when more than two dozen of the department’s Senior Executive Service (SES) employees, from nearly every agency, received memos informing them of the reassignments. None of the employees that The Nation spoke with were consulted in advance, which is considered both a common courtesy and responsible management. In most cases, even agency directors were kept in the dark until just before the memos went out. When one high-level supervisor asked if they were on the list, Cason reportedly replied, “Not this round.” The reassignments sent shock waves throughout the DOI. Dan Ashe, former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the transfers were clearly designed to disrupt the normal order of things and to undermine the authority of senior civil servants. Cason, who had served as chief human-capital officer under Bush, was intimately familiar with the SES and personally knew many of the employees who were transferred.

Among those reassigned was Joel Clement, a senior policy adviser and widely respected climate scientist, who was moved to an accounting office overseeing royalty collection from the fossil-fuel industry. Clement later filed a whistle-blower complaint alleging that his reassignment was politically motivated; he has since resigned. In his departing letter, Clement blasted senior-level appointees for being “shackled to special interests such as oil, gas, and mining.” Virginia Burkett, who oversaw climate-science research at the US Geological Survey, was transferred to an undefined advisory role in the office of the assistant secretary for water and science; she ended up leaving the SES and returning to a lower-grade position. Cindy Dohner, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s highly respected Southeast regional director, who oversaw restoration efforts in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP disaster, was reassigned to serve as the agency’s director for international affairs. She resigned instead.

“It made people very afraid to make decisions about things or to advocate for what we would call ‘good government,’” said Debra Sonderman, who was moved after almost 20 years in her role as director of acquisition and property management. Sonderman, too, has resigned.

According to numerous reports, the DOI is planning another series of reassignments. Rumors have been circulating since June that they could be announced at any time. One former DOI employee said that the list has already been compiled, but the department is waiting for the inspector general’s investigation to conclude before pulling the trigger. “Everybody is looking over their shoulder,” said Ashe, the former Fish and Wildlife Service director.

Unlike other departments that have displayed a shocking level of dysfunction—a kind of embodiment of the Trump presidency itself—the DOI is operating with ruthless efficiency. This is largely due to the presence of experienced appointees like Cason and David Bernhardt, Zinke’s deputy secretary, who was confirmed in late July. A former corporate lobbyist whose clients included major oil and gas producers, Bernhardt was once described by Center for Western Priorities spokesman Aaron Weiss as a “walking conflict of interest.” (Cason served as acting deputy secretary until Bernhardt’s nomination.)

A handful of other DOI officials from the George W. Bush era have resurfaced after spending the past eight years working for far-right think tanks or as industry lobbyists. Doug Domenech, most recently director of the Fueling Freedom Project, which promotes “the forgotten moral case for fossil fuels,” is now assistant secretary for insular affairs, coordinating policy for American territories in the South Pacific. Daniel Jorjani, a longtime adviser for several of the Koch brothers’ groups, is helping to craft the department’s legal policy. Scott Cameron, who spent the past several years advising a lobbying firm whose clients include Shell Oil and the Marcellus Shale Coalition, is now overseeing the DOI’s budget.

The oil and gas industry is now taking full advantage of the access offered by its allies at the department. Cason has described the DOI as having an “open-door policy,” and in the first month and a half of the administration—before Zinke was even confirmed—met with top industry lawyers, corporate lobbyists, and industry trade groups, including the American Petroleum Institute and Peabody Energy. Zinke himself has had dozens of meetings with energy executives and lobbyists, including those from ExxonMobil and BP. He’s used taxpayer dollars to fly on a private jet owned by an oil-and-gas-exploration firm in Wyoming, and as a member of Congress he received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the industry. So far, eight of the 12 secretarial orders he’s issued have called for greater access to drilling on public lands and in offshore waters.

In June, the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) sent a midyear legislative agenda to its board of directors, announcing that the playing field for oil and gas producers has been “dramatically altered.” A copy obtained by The Nation shows that in just the first few months of the Trump administration, the lobbying group achieved an astonishing number of the regulatory rollbacks on its wish list, including an elimination of the fracking rule and another that would have closed a loophole allowing coal companies to calculate their own royalties on coal sold at below-market rates.

There is still a great deal that energy interests hope to accomplish during the Trump administration. Ending a rule to limit methane venting and flaring from wells is at the top of that list. Undermining protections for endangered species on federal land is another key item. A third is ensuring that future administrations are unable to finalize what the IPAA calls “harmful” air-quality regulations that it says would limit offshore development.

Kate Kelly, former senior adviser to then–Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and current director of the public-lands team at the Center for American Progress, warns that it’s difficult to appreciate just how radically the DOI’s policies have changed and what this means for the environment. “In totality, what they are doing to open up public lands to oil and gas development—to basically hand the keys over to the energy industry—is pretty astounding,” she said.

Cason shares the industry’s sense of having a rare opportunity to reshape the policy landscape. In Denver, he mused that the midterm elections weren’t too far off—and that the dynamic in the Senate, and possibly even the House, could change, making it more difficult to advance a deregulatory agenda. “You think about having four years to do things,” he said, “but for those of us who have been on the federal-government side of the fence, you don’t really have four years. And if you want to effect change, you have to have a sense of urgency from day one.”

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy