Interior Nominee has Broad Support
by Rocky Barker
Idaho Statesman, December 18, 2008
Some key Idahoans approve of Ken Salazar of Colorado,
though some environmentalists fear he'll continue current policies.
President-elect Barack Obama's choice for interior secretary, Colorado Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar, brought wide praise from both environmentalists and industry Wednesday.
But some environmentalists are disappointed Obama chose a Westerner who won't dramatically change the policies of President George W. Bush and current Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. The former Idaho governor said Salazar will make a fine secretary.
"He recognizes the importance that America's federal lands must play in reducing our dependence on foreign energy," Kempthorne said. "He supports our national parks; he has positive relationships with American Indian tribes; he understands the complexities of Western water issues."
As secretary, Salazar would be the federal landlord over more than 507 million acres of national parks, rangeland and wildlife refuges. He would manage more than 600 dams that bring water to 31 million Westerners and irrigate 60 percent of all the vegetables grown in the United States.
The Department of the Interior administers more than 15 million acres in Idaho, including 12 million managed by the Bureau of Land Management. That's more than a fourth of Idaho's total land area
Salazar would be in charge of the fate of 1,317 threatened or endangered species. He would be responsible for 68 percent of the nation's oil and gas reserves and millions of acres of federal mining lands.
Salazar is the former director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and was the state's attorney general. He's a fifth-generation Coloradan who grew up on a farm and owns a ranch and helped push a major land protection program through in the state.
As senator, he joined Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo as a co-sponsor of a bill to repeal the Federal Lands Recreational Enhancement Act, which allows federal agencies to charge user fees for federal land. He also worked with Crapo on a bill that provided incentives for private landowners who protect endangered species habitat.
"He was strongly supportive of getting that through," Crapo said.
Salazar fought to protect Colorado's Roan Plateau from oil and gas development, even putting a hold on former Idaho Office of Species Conservation director Jim Caswell's nomination for BLM chief in 2007.
He's pro-gun, and he's not Raul Grijalva, the Arizona congressman that many environmentalists and liberals hoped would get the job.
"He's a cowboy-hat-wearing, Western Democrat in the mold of Cecil Andrus," said Bill Myers, a Boise attorney who represents ranchers and mining companies and was interior solicitor under former Secretary Gale Norton. Andrus, former Idaho governor, was interior secretary under President Jimmy Carter.
By choosing Salazar, Obama pleased Western Democratic governors who wanted a secretary who would not set back their efforts to rebuild the Democratic Party in the region. Their success has come by attracting urban voters who care about open space and environmental values without angering traditional ranchers, loggers and miners.
"If you look at a lot of the progress made on conservation issues, the greatest progress has been made by people who have an understanding of the landscapes they want to protect and the people," said Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, which represents 95 environmental groups in the state.
She said she hates to lose Salazar as a senator, but she expects progress on the wilderness, wildlife and public land issues her groups care about.
"It could be that a centralist like Ken Salazar can get more done because he's not a lightning rod and he can work with all sides," Jones said. "He's not going to draw a backlash from traditional commodities industries."
The Idaho Cattle Association expressed grave concern its industry would be targeted for new restrictions after Obama was elected - the group quickly declared that Obama would lead a "new war on the West." But Jennifer Ellis of Blackfoot, the group's immediate past president, was hopeful Salazar would understand their concerns.
"We look forward to working with Sen. Salazar and sincerely hope he will work with the cattle industry to ensure a common-sense approach to the land and species under his direction," Ellis said.
That's exactly why Jon Marvel, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, of Hailey, is worried. He points to Salazar's threat of a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior, when he was Colorado attorney general in 1999, to try to stop the listing of the black-tailed prairie dog as a threatened species.
"We're not very happy with Ken Salazar," he said. "After all, he's a rancher. He's been very active in undermining the Endangered Species Act in his career, and that doesn't bode well for wildlife on public lands."
Groups like Marvel's had hopes that the election of Obama would transform public land management, said John Freemuth, a Boise State University political science professor. But if the Obama administration makes such a swing, it risks a backlash that would hurt Democrats in the West.
"What some people appeared to want is someone who would carry their agenda, which would unnecessarily limit the use of the federal estate, which would have set off Sagebrush Rebellion 4," Freemuth said.
But the Idaho Conservation League's Rick Johnson is optimistic that Salazar can continue a shift toward protecting natural values that is increasingly becoming bipartisan in a region blessed with awe-inspiring scenery and habitat. It's a lesson groups like his are using to protect wilderness, water quality and wildlife.
"You can't run roughshod over the people of the West," Johnson said.
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