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.”