Ken Salazar Isn't a Green Crusader, But He's No Industry Lapdog, Either

December 18 2008, 12:14 AM
Coloradans already know that tapping a former state Attorney General to manage the nation's parks and fish and wildlife populations isn't necessarily a good thing. Gale Norton was President Bush's first Secretary of the Interior, and her tenure launched a dark period for the Interior and its agencies, leaving the job of repairing many blasted resources to Senator Ken Salazar--who followed Norton as Colorado's AG back in 1999 and has now been nominated as Barack Obama's Interior boss. Over the years, Salazar has received mixed reviews from state and national environmental organizations and outdoors groups, which is as much a reminder that there is no one voice behind a vision for America's environment as it is that Salazar has been neither a pure green crusader nor an industry lapdog. The truth is, Ken Salazar's nomination represents a mixed bag of good and bad. The Good Expect Salazar to restore some sanity to oil-and-gas development on public lands, including areas all over Colorado. As a prime example, the Roan Plateau, outside Rifle, has been a major battleground for environmental management over the last eight years. The Bush administration has refused to account for local opposition, damage to fish and wildlife habitat, and lost recreational opportunities, in pushing to drill the plateau for oil and gas. Despite the negative impacts of full-bore drilling on the Roan, the Bureau of Land Management leased parcels of the plateau this summer. Chris Hunt, of Trout Unlimited's Public Lands Initiative, expects Salazar to hit the brakes on drilling of public lands, and reverse the top-down management that has turned Colorado and other Western states into oil-and-gas colonies. Despite leases on the Roan, Hunt says Salazar, who supported a slower approach to drilling the plateau, could refund the sales made this summer, which wouldn't be a bad deal for energy companies, considering the sinking price of fossil fuels. Salazar has raised eyebrows with some of his Congressional energy-policy votes. The New Republic's The Stump makes mention of his backing for the 2005 energy bill and amendments, which sought to skip new fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles and protect tax breaks for ExxonMobil. But on the flip side, Grist covers Salazar's Congressional stands and votes on a number of other energy issues, including his opposition to oil-shale development, his general support for limiting America's oil consumption, and his middle-of-the-road position on offshore drilling and renewable-energy tax breaks. The Colorado senator has also championed more protection for public lands, including pushing a bill to extend the National Landscape Conservation System that encompasses lands in western Colorado. Brian Geiger of the Campaign for America's Wilderness calls Salazar a "bona fide wilderness advocate." Additionally, he has backed legislation to enable the cleanup of abandoned mines, which pollute streams with toxic metals all over the West but can't be restored because of liability concerns. The Bad A collection of 141 environmental groups were aching for Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva to be tapped for the Interior appointment from President-elect Obama, evidenced by a letter of endorsement sent to Obama last week. Grijalva is the chair of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, and he penned a report this summer detailing all the missteps that Interior's departments and the country's public resources have suffered in the last eight years. Grijalva is more of a known commodity, says Josh Pollock of the Boulder-based Center for Native Ecosystems, which signed the support letter: "We will be hopeful of Senator Salazar's ability to balance the competing interests and do so in a way that maintains the most important things that Interior needs to do." The department and its agencies will have to restore their reputations for making decisions based on science and staff expertise, both of which have been ignored under Bush. Center for Native Ecosystems has been involved with several petitions and lawsuits to list wildlife under the Endangered Species Act, only to have political appointees overrule staff decisions in favor of protection. Some groups are questioning whether Salazar brings the will to address the corruption. In a press release, Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, another environmental group that frequently sues the government to force decisions on endangered species and other resource issues, says Salazar has an environmental record that is "decidedly mixed, and is especially weak in the arenas most important to the next Secretary of the Interior: protecting scientific integrity, combating global warming, reforming energy development and protecting endangered species." Suckling also grilled Salazar for lacking judgment and the initiative for reform on several past political appointments. Among them was his support of Norton for the Interior chief, Alberto Gonzales as U.S. Attorney General, and William Myers III as a federal judge, despite Myers' cozy and questionable relations with ranchers when he was the Interior Department solicitor. (Salazar eventually opposed Myers' appointment.) Salazar won't likely cave to environmentalists' lawsuits--he is himself an attorney--but not all conservation groups think that's a bad thing for fish and wildlife. "We'll probably see an approach that is closer to what the Endangered Species Act was originally intended to do," Hunt says. "I think Salazar is going to be fairly thoughtful on these issues." The Unknown Things have gotten so awful at Interior that anybody Obama picked would be an improvement in the eyes of most environmentalists, conservation groups, and sportsmen. But, just as Obama could face a short honeymoon, his choice for Interior could also have a brief grace period to reverse course and implement major reform. "The incoming Interior Secretary has a lot of work cut out for him in terms of repairing damage, even from the last few weeks and days," says Pollock, referring to recent "midnight regulations" signed by Bush. Despite the harsh criticism from highly expectant environmental groups, mainstream national organizations such as the National Parks Conservation Association and Environmental Defense Fund seem pleased with his nomination. Besides, fans and critics expect that Salazar will be taking cues and setting policies at the behest of his new boss, rather than building his own platform. He's a centrist and I think that will serve him well in this position," says Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition who calls Salazar "a great pick" for Interior Secretary. "I'd also remind folks that he's going to be working for President-elect Obama and implementing the agenda of the Obama administration. "I think Salazar's reputation as a compromiser and middle-of-the-road Democrat is good," Hunt says, noting that Trout Unlimited's membership includes more Republicans than Dems. "He's going to be really hard for the Republicans to point to and say he's an extreme appointment."