Grants provided by the Department of the Interior, such as one last year that supported efforts to protect the western snowy plover (above), will now get new scrutiny to ensure they align with Trump administration priorities.

Blake Matheson/Flickr (CC BY NC 2.0)

U.S. Interior Department to put academic, nonprofit grants through political review

The U.S. Interior Department will now funnel certain grants through a political screening intended to ensure the federal dollars "better align" with the administration's "priorities," according to a newly revealed memo.

The move invests considerable power in a senior Interior Department adviser named Steve Howke, who will be reviewing grants including those above $50,000 for universities, land acquisition purposes and nonprofits that can engage in advocacy.

The new review process covering discretionary grants, declared in a 28 December memo, also comes with sharp teeth.

"Instances circumventing the secretarial priorities or the review process will cause greater scrutiny and will result in slowing down the approval process for all awards," the memo stated, in boldface.

Secretary Ryan Zinke's priorities range from "actively support[ing] efforts to secure our southern border" and ensuring "American energy is available to meet our security and economic needs" to employing more veterans and shifting "the balance toward providing greater public access to public lands over restrictions to access," according to an accompanying memo.

Howke, identified in the memo as the new grant reviewer, has until now had a very low profile. His only appearance on the Interior Department's website is his inclusion on an organizational chart from November.

"I'm reviewing this new grant approval regime, but I'm immediately skeptical given the administration's track record," Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) said in a statement."This grant approval process looks like a backdoor way to stop funds going to legitimate scientific and environmental projects."

Skeptics like Grijalva have previously raised similar concerns about new grant review procedures imposed at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Greenwire, Aug. 22, 2017).

The three-page memo authored by Scott Cameron, principal deputy assistant Interior secretary for policy, management and budget, does not estimate how many grants or how much money overall might be affected. An Interior spokesperson did not elaborate today.

This grant approval process looks like a backdoor way to stop funds going to legitimate scientific and environmental projects.

Representative Raúl Grijalva (D–AZ)

But as an example of the type of grants that could now face tighter scrutiny, the Interior Department is currently soliciting applications for grants of up to $2 million for battlefield land acquisition through the American Battlefield Protection Program.

In a similar vein, over the past year, Interior has offered grants exceeding $50,000 for a wide array of endeavors from western snowy plover recovery in the San Francisco Bay Area to operations and maintenance of Colorado weather stations.

All told, Interior provided $806 million in project grants and $763 million in cooperative agreements in fiscal 2016. More than 18,000 individual cooperative agreements and grants were provided, potentially reflecting the kind of funding that could be reviewed, and second-guessed, under the new policy.

"Grants and cooperative agreements of any type in any amount may be subject to an after-the-fact review process to ascertain whether the funds were appropriately expended and whether the anticipate benefits were produced," Cameron's memo notes.

Cameron has considerable experience with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Office of Management and Budget, among other past employers. He is currently Interior's top budget officer, pending the Senate confirmation of Susan Combs as assistant secretary (E&E Daily, July 21, 2017).

The memo, first obtained by The Washington Post, directs all Interior bureaus to report back within two weeks on all their financial assistance programs, specifying which grants and cooperative agreements are discretionary and hence subject to the new review process.