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NOAA’s proposed move raises questions about its role

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a slogan that captures its odd position in the federal hierarchy: “NOAA may be the most important agency you’ve never heard of.”

That contradiction was on full display earlier this month, when President Obama announced a reorganization plan for the Commerce Department. Some agencies were to join Commerce. But NOAA, which received only a brief mention, was to move to the Interior Department.

So the agency in charge of tracking everything from the weather to fish in the sea is slated to switch over to the nation’s premier public lands department, prompting a question: Is that the right move?

Of course, whether it should even be in Commerce is a point of contention. It ended up there because President Richard M. Nixon was miffed at his interior secretary.

“The [Obama] reorganization aimed to create a new, consolidated department with a laser-like focus on business, trade and economic growth,” Lisa Brown, executive director of the Government Reform Initiative at the Office of Management and Budget, said in an interview. “NOAA focuses on weather, ocean and coastal management, and science. Those are two fundamentally different missions, both of which are critically important.”

While some of its divisions have existed for years — the National Weather Service dates to 1870 and was part of the War and Agriculture departments before being moved to Commerce by Franklin D. Roosevelt — NOAA was created on July 9, 1970. As David Helvarg writes in his book “Blue Frontier,” Nixon placed the new agency in Commerce to spite Interior Secretary Walter J. Hickel, who had warned the president two months before that he should heed the calls of young anti-Vietnam War activists.

Hickel lost his job by Thanksgiving, and NOAA ended up in Commerce. For years, some environmentalists said the agency would be better off in Interior, which oversees the nation’s parks and other land holdings along with its wildlife, rather than a department aimed at promoting U.S. business.

In some ways, NOAA could fit more easily within Interior, with its science-oriented U.S. Geological Survey and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees imperiled species and their habitat. Others say that some divisions mesh better with Commerce. The National Weather Service, for instance, provides critical planning information on everything from precipitation to temperature fluctuations for the farming and transportation sectors.

Nixon should have moved NOAA to the Department of Interior 42 years ago, Helvarg said in an e-mail. He added that Congress may not grant the administration the authority to reorganize. “Still, I’m not entirely without hope that we might yet restore the blue in our red, white and blue,” Helvarg said.

Brown said that after conferring with NOAA’s top leadership and several of the constituencies the agency oversees, the administration concluded the move to Interior made the most sense: “By consolidating NOAA into Interior, we will strengthen our stewardship and conservation efforts and enhance scientific resources.”

The fact that NOAA’s $4.9 billion budget is about 60 percent of Commerce’s overall funding provides it with clout within the department, according to its advocates. Some fear the agency could lose that in a larger department. “NOAA will be less prominent as one small part of Interior than it is in Commerce,” David Goldston of the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote in a recent blog post, adding that “having NOAA as a separate agency also brings more of a federal focus and voice to ocean issues, which are critically important to health, the economy and the environment yet are all too easy to overlook.”

Administration officials say they will move NOAA in its entirety to Interior but have not decided how it will be integrated. Officials at both NOAA and Interior referred all questions to the White House.

Several environmentalists, along with some lawmakers and NOAA employees, have begun to question whether the agency would be better off staying put. NOAA manages costly weather satellites, the nation’s commercial and recreational fisheries, and a range of coastal, ocean and atmospheric programs. Some predict these functions could lose clout if they were divvied up in Interior.

“NOAA’s core functions — managing fish and forecasting the weather — are vitally important to Alaska,” Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) wrote in an e-mail. “I am concerned whether these responsibilities would get the attention they deserve after being folded into a huge department with a much different focus. Right now I’m most troubled that the administration hasn’t figured out how the merger will work even before they announced it.”

Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, the union that represents employees in several NOAA divisions, said the administration has failed to grasp the connection between the agency’s weather division and commerce and the fact the division could be hampered by reshuffling.

“Why take that risk when you have something that works?” Sobien asked.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), who is scrutinizing the issue as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has raised similar questions.

“Our main worry is that shifting NOAA into somebody else’s office could hurt their ability to carry out their mission,” said Rockefeller spokesman Vince Morris. “Does it really make sense to put an agency that tracks weather down the hall from the agency that issues oil drilling permits? That’s what we’re looking it.”

The environmental community appears to be split on the proposal. Michael Conathan, ocean policy director for the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, noted that many fail to appreciate the agency despite the fact that the oceans and atmosphere “are fundamental to virtually every industry in this country.”

Interior could benefit from absorbing a department with a strong record of scientific research and regulatory oversight such as NOAA, Conathan added.

But Emily Woglom, Ocean Conservancy’s director of government relations, noted that NOAA has sometimes clashed with Interior over how best to regulate offshore drilling, and these concerns might not become public under a combined agency. “Having an independent voice for the ocean and ocean science is most important,” she said.

Andrew Rosenberg, who served as deputy director of NOAA’s fisheries division under President Bill Clinton, said the biggest question is not where the agency ends up but whether people start giving NOAA its due.

“I really worry in these discussions that people aren’t really thinking about, ‘What does NOAA do for us?’ ” said Rosenberg, now Conservation International’s chief scientist. “Would it be disaster to put it in Interior? If it’s done right, no. If it’s done badly? Of course.”

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