U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) - History of Business in the U.S.Identification: Cabinet-level department of the federal government controlling most nationally owned land, which totals about one-fifth of all the land in the United States
Date: Established in 1849
Significance: Since its inception, the Department of the Interior has handled miscellaneous duties in addition to controlling public lands. With such wide-ranging duties, the department has been difficult to manage and corruption has been rife. Business has both benefited and suffered from the department’s control over public lands and natural resources.
The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) was created in 1849 by taking the Indian Affairs office from the Department of War, the Patent Office from the State Department, and the General Land Office from the Department of the Treasury. None of these offices had fit well within the cabinetlevel departments from which they were removed. By the 1840’s, it was clear that a new department to handle these miscellaneous offices was required. This became especially clear after the Mexican War, when a large section of land was added to the United States. From the very inception of the Interior Department, it had the character of the department of miscellany; in the department’s official history, it is labeled the “department of everything else.”
As of 2008, the Interior Department was in charge of the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, the Minerals Management Service, the Office of Surface Mining, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Office of Insular Affairs. American businesses have significant interactions with each of these departments. Given the wide range of activities, it has been difficult for the Interior Department to maintain tight control over its subdivisions. Because each new subdivision had so many ways to enrich various American businesses, the department has been subject to repeated scandals.
This 1938 poster shows Old Faithful erupting at Yellowstone National Park. Management of national parks is part of the Department of the Interior’s duties. (Library of Congress)
Almost from its inception, the Interior Department has been involved in scandals in which it gave some businesses improper advantages over their competition and gave public land and resources belonging to the American people to a handful of people who were willing to pay bribes. Early in its history, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was rife with scandal, which received very little public scrutiny because most of the citizenry did not care much about the Native Americans who were affected.
Throughout the department’s history, businesses have sought to use public lands and the natural resources contained in them for private profit. Early in the twentieth century, a major scandal occurred over the management of national forests. During the 1920’s, the U.S. strategic petroleum reserve was removed from the control of the Department of the Navy and placed under the control of the Department of the Interior with the deliberate intent that the oil reserves would be accessed by private companies at the expense of the public. This became known as the Teapot Dome scandal. Throughout the twentieth century, many of the public lands have been opened for grazing at little or no cost to ranchers, allowing public resources to be used for private gain.
In 2008, another scandal involving oil resources was uncovered, in which public officials allegedly bartered away billions of dollars in oil royalties for sexual favors and lavish gifts. No other department in American history has been as involved in improperly benefiting selected businesses as the Interior Department.
Richard L. Wilson
Arnold, Peri E. Making the Managerial Presidency: Comprehensive Reorganization Planning, 1905-1996. 2d ed. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. A serious academic examination of the efforts to reform the federal bureaucracy to improve managerial innovation.
Cronin, John, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. The Riverkeepers: Two Activists Fight to Reclaim Our Environment as a Basic Human Right. New York: Scribner, 1999. A case study of unwise Interior Department practices that threaten rivers. Examines these practices in the context of American environmental policy.
Kennedy, Robert F., Jr. Crimes Against Nature. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Spirited attack on environmental problems, which are exacerbated by Department of Interior policies.
Utley, Robert M., and Barry Mackintosh. The Department of Everything Else: Highlights of Interior History. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Interior, 1989. Although this is an official history of the department, it nonetheless contains much useful information.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005. A liberal interpretation of American history, which sheds some light on the difficulties in U.S. policies, including those involving public land use.
See also: U.S. Department of Education; Environmental Protection Agency; U.S. Department of Labor; Land laws; mineral resources; Native American trade; Supreme Court and land law.