Florida advocate picked to oversee U.S. parks and wildlife pledges commitment to conservation

Shannon A. Estenoz. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. Credit: U.S. Department of the Interior.

Florida’s Shannon Estenoz, tapped by President Joe Biden to oversee management of U.S. wildlife and parks, on Wednesday repeated the administration’s promises to increase access to outdoor recreation, use conservation for job creation, and collaborate with states and private landowners.

Asked by members of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee during her confirmation hearing what her priorities would be, Estenoz said she’d promote the agenda Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland have set.

That includes tackling climate change, increasing “equal access to nature,” telling diverse stories of U.S. history, recommitting to tribal relations, and spending on infrastructure to improve public lands and coastal resilience, she said.

Estenoz, the former CEO of the environmental nonprofit the Everglades Foundation, would oversee the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service as assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, with directors of both agencies reporting to her.

She referred several times to her upbringing on Key West and the five generations of her family history on the island, and the ethos of conservation growing up on the island instilled in her.

“When your family has been in a place for many generations, there is an instinct to conserve that has nothing to do with science or regulations,” she said. “It has to do with a connection to place and to a way of life.”

Since Biden took office on Jan. 20, Estenoz has been working as a principal deputy assistant secretary. That position doesn’t require Senate confirmation but has roughly equivalent responsibilities to the post for which she’s been nominated. Her role likely has given her better insight into the administration’s goals on conservation, which she promoted throughout the hearing.

For example, she said the administration wanted to improve access to natural areas for all communities, an issue the pandemic has shown to have increased importance.

“The year that we’ve been through as a nation is perfect evidence for how important it is for folks to have access to outdoor spaces,” Estenoz said. “So many Americans have taken refuge in the parks in the neighborhoods, in their communities. And for folks that don’t have access to those spaces, it’s been that much harder to cope with the year that we’ve been through.”

A multi-agency report to the White House last week listed equitable access to parkland as one of the administration’s priorities. On Monday, the Interior Department said it was providing $150 million for a competitive grant program for local governments to build parks in urban areas.

Estenoz echoed one of the report’s priorities — collaboration with private landowners and state authorities — in regards to protecting endangered species.

Ernst questions 30×30 goals

Estenoz, who worked for 24 years in private conservation nonprofits and state government on efforts to build infrastructure to restore the Everglades, and whose father was a civil engineer who helped design the Seven Mile Bridge connecting the Florida Keys, also promoted the administration’s infrastructure proposal, which she said could aid conservation efforts.

“I know that jobs, infrastructure, conservation, and restoration can and should go hand in hand,” she said.

She added that she would be sensitive to the demands federal environmental reviews place on states. She said the government should seek the “right balance between thoroughness and timeliness.”

Republicans on the committee gave no indication they planned to oppose her confirmation, athough some did raise concerns with the Biden administration’s environmental and energy agenda.

Committee ranking Republican Shelley Moore Capito, of West Virginia, said she was concerned by the pace and “unilateral nature” of changes to the federal environmental review process, a rule to strengthen protections for migratory birds, and a decision to revisit environmental regulation of navigable waters.

Sen. Joni Ernst, (R-Iowa), questioned how the administration could reach its goal of conserving 30 percent of U.S. land and water by 2030 without impeding private property rights.

Ernst said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, told the state’s senior U.S. senator, Republican Chuck Grassley, that the 30 percent benchmark could be reached by using the Agriculture Department’s Conservation Reserve Program.

“I don’t see how that works,” Ernst said. “CRP is for vulnerable lands. Not every state farms. So I’m not sure, I guess maybe he just wants to take it away from those of us that farm.”

‘Waters of the U.S.’ rule

Estenoz testified alongside two nominees for EPA positions: Radhika Fox, Biden’s nominee to be assistant administrator for water, and Michal Freedhoff, the nominee to be assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention.

Much of the hearing focused on the Waters of the United States rule, a 2015 EPA regulation that expanded the definition of waters that the government holds jurisdiction over.

Republicans have opposed the Obama-era rule for years, saying it hampered farmers’ ability to manage waters on their own properties. Former President Donald Trump’s EPA rolled back the rule last year. On the day Biden took office, the new president signed an executive order directing a review of the rule.

Republicans on the panel Wednesday, as well as Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, asked Fox about that process and urged her not to return to the Obama definition.

Fox said the goal for her and EPA Administrator Michael Regan is to create a definition that would be durable, and not subject to change with every change in presidential administrations.

A Democratic Senate staffer said committee votes on the nominees have not been scheduled.