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.