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Frances Beinecke’s Blog

Salazar at the Interior Department: So Much at Stake

Frances Beinecke

Posted December 17, 2008

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I welcome the news that President-elect Obama has appointed Senator Ken Salazar at the Secretary of the Interior. After years of corruption and corporate dominance at the Interior Department, we desperately need to change the way America's national parks, public lands and wildlife are managed. Salazar must usher in that change, because so much is at stake.

As Secretary of the Interior, Salazar will oversee not only the Bureau of Land Management, but also the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This is our entire natural heritage. And when it comes to wilderness and threatened species, bad actions are irreparable. 

Last year, I flew over the Roan Plateau, one of the most biologically diverse areas in Colorado. The plateau rises 3,500 feet above the Colorado River Valley, and from the plane I could see its green expanses of rolling shrubs and thriving aspen stands--home to cougars, black bears, and golden eagles.

But once the plane veered off the plateau, the land was scarred with drill pads, pipelines, and waste dumps. The contrast was startling, yet this same fate could befall the Roan Plateau: The Bureau of Land Management announced its decision to allow oil and gas drilling in the area. NRDC is fighting those plans.

But even if the Roan Plateau wins a reprieve, thousands of other polluting energy projects marched ahead in the last eight years. Just today, NRDC Trustee Robert Redford gave a press conference about NRDC's lawsuit to block a final Bush attempt to give away pristine public lands in Utah. This is what Salazar has to change or wild places like the Roan Plateau will be lost forever.

Salazar's own connection to the land gives me hope. Salazar is a fifth-generation Coloradan who grew up on a cattle and alfalfa ranch without running water or electricity. His home was is in the stunning San Luis Valley, where rich ranching and farming land is banked by the wild San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges.

As a senator, Salazar supported his state's efforts to limit the impacts to groundwater from the heavily polluting process of in-situ uranium mining and taken often lonely stands against oil shale. Still, the challenges before Salazar are great, and he will need to be a forceful leader for change.

Salazar Must Restore Balance to Managing Lands

Thanks to the infamous Cheney Energy Task Force, the Bush administration made energy development the top priority for public lands. It directed agencies like the BLM to abandon the Congressional mandate of "multiple use" for public lands, which for over 30 years has required that energy development be balanced against other values such as recreation and environmental protection.

The approach was summed up by Tom Gnojek, a BLM employee in Price, Utah, who was quoted in the LA Times as saying, "If [a landscape] is not wanted by the oil and gas industry or the ORV [off-road vehicle] industry, we can protect it."

Salazar must put an end to industry getting first dibs at land owned by the American people. All parties need a seat at the table when land management plans are made, and conservationist values need to be restored to their rightful place in the decision-making process.

Salazar Must Restore Ethical Conduct

A rash of crooked deeds has plagued the Interior Department for several years. Some involve seedy instances of Mineral Management employees doling out cocaine and sex. Others point to a more systemic crisis. Just this week, the department's inspector general informed Congress that on 15 occasions political appointees within the Interior Department willfully disregarded agency scientists and chose to weaken protections for endangered species even when the data called for the opposite.

Salazar has to send a powerful signal that the era of unethical behavior and unchecked industry influence is over. This will be challenging. The Bush administration has been hurriedly embedding its political appointees into staff positions at the BLM and other agencies.

But Salazar can combat it in two ways. First, he can tap people to run the Interior agencies who come directly from the fields of conservation, land management, or government stewardship. Second, he can establish a culture in which independent scientific data is the final litmus test for all agency decisions.





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Peter BrayDec 17 2008 05:05 PM

You're kidding, right? Well, NRDC, you kept quiet (despite years of hollering about Norton/Bush), and look what happens...

We get Salazar, he who threatened to sue if species were put on ESA, he who voted against raising CAFE standards, he who voted to drill offshore, he who makes the mining industry "please" (per today's NY Times).

Yeah, this is GREAT "change".

Peter BrayDec 17 2008 05:10 PM

Oh, and let's not forget that Salazar actually SUPPORTED Gale Norton at Interior! Yep, really great pick Mr. Obama!

John LiffeeDec 17 2008 07:54 PM

I'm with you, Peter -- it's a disheartening choice, a bit of appeasement for the extractive industries.

Salazar supported Bush's nomination of William Myers III for the federal bench, despite a "not qualified" rating from the American Bar Association and a bald-faced record of seeking evisceration of any sort of legal protections for public lands. (See Center for Biological Diversity's Kieran Suckling on this. And Arizona state pol Daniel Patterson has a long post cobbling together the most material on Salazar I've seen so far.)

I dunno. I can understand NRDC and others wanting to protect access to Obama administration enough to be willing to give Salazar a chance, but that agency is so deeply screwed up it really would have been nice to see Obama pick someone with some real energy. Maybe the pick is just a recognition that in this economic climate Interior will be so impoverished that not much positive is going to happen, and the agency head should be someone who can deal with that and not rock the boat.

Whatever the case, I sincerely hope that NRDC will be willing to go to the mattresses if and when Salazar does something stupid.

Lydia MilletDec 18 2008 11:52 AM

Frances, as a one-time employee of NRDC who still often defends the group in arguments about how compromised and spineless the national groups have become, I'm deeply disappointed you're coming out in favor of Salazar. Sure, there are access issues. But come on. This is a bad appointment. Grijalva or Inslee could have made the difference between extinction and survival for scores of endangered species. Obama clearly knows nothing about western conservation. NRDC should have stepped up and helped promote the two candidates who could really have helped us -- not jumped on the Salazar bandwagon after the fact in what amounts to a greenwash.

Steve AblesonDec 18 2008 12:29 PM

None of the big national environmental groups, including NRDC, endorsed or promoted Salazar before his name was leaked as a done deal by the Obama transition team. Why would you have? His record is mixed, and especially poor on global warming and endangered species.

Then as expected by Team Obama, you all fell in line to endorse and curry favor with the apparent victor. NRDC should be leading and encouraging visionary action, not waiting off stage to pander to someone elses appointed victor.

Peter BrayDec 18 2008 06:47 PM

Note the different tactics employed by gay-rights groups in their reaction to Rick Warren; and those employed by NRDC/etc in their reaction to Salazar/etc.

Only one is making waves, and backpedaling, and will probably get concessions down the road.

Frances BeineckeDec 18 2008 07:34 PM

Thanks for all your comments and your engagement with the issues. My response to the nomination is intended to encourage Mr. Salazar to build on the pro-environmental aspects of his record to date.

I especially want to see an end to corruption, with which the Interior Department has been replete, a renewed role for public input, and a return to integrity in science. It looks like Salazar is an ethical guy who can do that. In my view, NRDC's job is to hold him accountable on the conservation side of things. And we will.

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