U.S. Representative for New Mexico Deb Haaland faced questioning this week during her confirmation hearing for secretary of the interior. While questions ranged from her stance on climate to whether she supported fossil fuel development, Senator Martin Heinrich included questions on the outdoor recreation economy and what improvements need to be made to education on tribal lands.
HEINRICH: I want to ask you, Congresswoman, about the great American outdoors act because it provides $9.9 billion over the next five years to maintain and repair infrastructure on our public lands. And this is funding that can put people to work immediately, replacing roofs on visitor centers, repairing trails, improving campgrounds, doing things we should have done 50 years ago to invest in our outdoor recreation economy and in rural communities. And I just want to ask you, what steps can the Interior Department take to make sure that this funding is put to work as quickly as possible?
HAALAND: Senator, I know there are many areas across the country, I think the best thing to do is to make sure we are consulting with each other that we get a list of priorities and get to work. I can imagine that every senator on this committee would have a list of priorities in their own state for that funding. And I think it would be a tremendous boost.
HEINRICH: Thank you. And you know, one of the things about outdoor recreation is it really impacts our entire state in New Mexico. There are certain places that have oil and gas, there’s certain places that have, you know, wind potential, but outdoor recreation is something where we can invest in practically every rural community in the state. As you know, the Bureau of Indian Education established a top 10 priority list for replacing BIA schools in 2016. And top of that list was Laguna Elementary, which I know you're familiar with. They received some funding in 2018, but the project is still not finished and it took 12 years to get through the top 10 list. So, it's clear to me that this pace is inadequate, as there are 78 schools that have been designated in poor condition. And I would just ask you, can you commit to reviewing that school replacement list and looking for ways to improve and speed up the process?
HAALAND: Senator, It would be my pleasure. I was trying to add up how long ago I went to Laguna elementary school, close to 50 years ago and so I'm sure that it's been there for much longer than that. So, there is a lot of work to do and our children deserve to have opportunities to learn in the best way. So, yes.
HEINRICH: You know, another issue that we've had a chance to work on a little bit about, as you know, for centuries, sacred cultural items that belong to tribal communities have been taken to foreign countries and sold to the highest bidder. Now, we have laws in the United States that make the sale of certain tribal sacred objects a federal crime. However, we do not have a law against taking those same items overseas, and selling them there. And that's a loophole that we need to fix. I have legislation with Senator Murkowski that would do that. However, even when we have an export ban in place, there are likely 1000s of sacred objects already overseas that need to be brought back home to tribal communities where they belong. And the Interior Department plays a critical role in the international repatriation of those items, working with the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and others to ensure that tribes are able to reclaim these items that have been stolen from them. As Secretary, will you commit to making repatriation of these items an actual priority for the department, it is part of the responsibility, but I think it's something that just has not been fully elevated to a real priority in previous administrations.
HAALAND: Thank you so much, Senator and Senator Murkowski for caring about this important issue. It's heartbreaking. I've seen some of those pictures on the internet. And it's heartbreaking to know that folks who don't know the power or the meaning of those objects, think of them as art and they're definitely not art. So absolutely, that would be a very important issue and I believe tribes would be grateful.
HEINRICH: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Representative Haaland continued to testify Wednesday February 24th, and is still awaiting a committee vote in the next few days.