The founding of the Department of the Interior in 1849 was a direct response to the nation’s acquisition of an enormous parcel of land in the Trans-Mississippi West – the northern Mexican borderlands and the Oregon Territory that had been held in joint occupation with Britain. Having originated in a rebellion against empire, the United States very soon found itself in the ironic situation of owning and governing a vast contiguous land empire of its own, populated with Indian people, the descendants of Spanish colonists, and an ever-increasing population of migrants and settlers. Agencies like the General Land Office and the Office of Indian Affairs, located in the Department of the Interior, thus bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the agencies and structures of colonial governance worldwide. Over the years, Interior acquired a host of new agencies, all of them with particular bearing on the history of the West: the US Geological Survey, the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. And yet, paradoxically, the history of bureaucracies can strike even engaged and historically attuned citizens as a terminally boring subject. Patty Limerick hopes that Exploring the Interior will invite readers to recognize and reflect on the great significance of Interior and the people, places, and creatures whose destinies are intertwined with this vast and complicated bureaucracy. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, when antigovernment sentiments swirl around the nation, Limerick is discovering, thinking, writing, and speaking about how one of the largest units of the federal government can provide nearly as much adrenaline as the hang-gliding, extreme skiing, and high-risk rock climbing often performed on lands managed by the Department of the Interior.

If you like this project, you might also be interested in Inside Interior.