Conservation groups give Salazar mixed welcome
December 17, 2008
DENVER ” Some conservation groups are welcoming the selection of Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar as interior secretary, but others are opposing him as head of the agency that oversees vast tracts of public land and endangered species.
President-elect Barack Obama announced the nomination Wednesday.
The choice of Salazar, whose Western roots stretch back to the 16th century, cheered groups that have fought to protect remote backcountry and pristine watersheds as oil and gas drilling has increased across the West.
“On the whole, we’re really optimistic that his appointment will translate into commonsense changes in the ways federal land is maintained in relation to fish and wildlife habitat,” said Chris Hunt of Trout Unlimited’s public lands initiative.
Salazar, a former director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, has clashed with the Bush administration over oil and gas drilling on public lands. The Democrat temporarily blocked the confirmation of James Caswell as Bureau of Land Management chief last year to win more time for Colorado officials to review plans to drill on federal land on the Roan Plateau in Western Colorado.
He also joined his brother, Rep. John Salazar, and Rep. Mark Udall, both Colorado Democrats, to ban federal funding for final regulations for commercial oil shale development in the Rockies. They argued the BLM’s plan didn’t adequately address potential environmental and economic impacts.
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The administration approved final rules when the moratorium expired in November.
Salazar, who has angered some Democrats by siding with Republicans at times, also joined a bipartisan group of senators earlier this year to propose an energy policy that included relaxing restrictions on offshore drilling.
“I think he is a lot better than the rape-and-pillage approach we’ve had the last eight years,” said Sharon Buccino, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
One of Salazar’s strengths, Buccino said, is the ability to bring diverse interests together. “He’s clearly committed to protecting both Western lands and community,” she said.
In contrast, some wildlife advocacy groups denounced Salazar’s selection and urged Obama to withdraw it. A letter opposing his nomination was signed by about 50 wildlife biologists and members of environmental groups.
“I think at best he’s not interested in Endangered Species Act implementation and at worst, he might object to some of the more important listings that need to occur,” said Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians in Santa Fe, N.M.
Rosmarino and Kieran Suckling of the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity noted that as Colorado attorney general, Salazar and Republican state officials in 1999 in threatened to sue the federal government if the black-tailed prairie dog was declared endangered.
They criticized Salazar’s endorsement of Republican Gale Norton, also a former Colorado attorney general, as President George W. Bush’s interior secretary.
The groups blame Norton for the agency’s ongoing scandals of political interference in scientific decisions on endangered species. Julie MacDonald, a high-ranking interior official, resigned last year after the department’s inspector general found she pressured government scientists to alter their findings and leaked information to industry officials.
Rosmarino said Salazar, a fifth-generation rancher in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, has favored agricultural interests over wildlife concerns.
Bob Irvin, Defenders of Wildlife’s senior vice president for conservation programs, backed the choice of Salazar.
“You have to look at his overall record,” he said. “As a senator, he has supported legislation that would increase the tax incentives for landowners to conserve habitat.”
Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C., issued a statement Wednesday saying Salazar has had “an increasingly strong environmental voting record” in his four years in the Senate.
Supporters note the 53-year-old Salazar’s Western heritage and understanding of natural resource issues. He was an environmental and water attorney in private practice.
That knowledge of the West is seen by both environmentalists and energy developers as crucial because much of the area at the heart of the fiercest public-lands battles is in the West.
Most of the 258 million surface acres and 700 million acres of subsurface minerals managed by the BLM is West of the Mississippi River. The acreage makes up more than 40 percent of all lands overseen by the federal government.
Oil and gas industry trade groups that have clashed with Salazar over drilling on federal land said he is a good choice for interior secretary.
“I’ve known Ken Salazar for 15 years and he is a man of great integrity,” said Greg Schnacke, president of Colorado-based Americans for American Energy. “While we don’t always agree with Ken Salazar, we expect to get a fair hearing” from him.
Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, said Salazar is well known in the energy industry as thoughtful and balanced.
“As a Westerner, he understands public lands issue, the open space, hunting and recreation and all the other interests that must be harmonized,” Gerard said.
Renewable energy advocates praised Salazar’s record. Obama said Salazar will have input into his administration’s energy policy.
“He’s been a great friend of renewable energy development,” said Craig Cox, executive director of the Colorado-based Interwest Energy Alliance, a trade and advocacy group.
Salazar has promoted Colorado as a renewable energy leader, pointing to the state’s growing number of wind and solar power companies and installations.
He helped organize energy summits the last three years that drew state and federal officials and companies nationwide.