Homer Lee Wilkes. Ignacia Moreno. Hilary Tompkins. Each is a member of a racial or ethnic minority, and each has been nominated by Barack Obama, our first black president, to a high position with power over environmental issues in the West. And each has faced skepticism from environmentalists.
On May 5, Obama picked Wilkes to be undersecretary of Agriculture for natural resources and environment. That job oversees 193 million acres of national forests, mostly in the West. Wilkes, the first black ever nominated for the job, is a Southerner — rooted in Mississippi — who's spent decades in farmland conservation, working for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Many environmentalists thought Wilkes lacked the right credentials for the promotion. Typically "the undersecretary position (is) held by a Forest Service expert," Andy Stahl, Oregon-based director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, told The Associated Press. Stahl said it revealed "the relatively low priority … Obama … places on the national forests."
Wilkes withdrew from consideration in June, citing "personal reasons," AP reported, and Obama has not yet nominated a replacement.
Meanwhile, on May 12, Obama picked Moreno for a key Justice Department job. As assistant attorney general in charge of the environment and natural resources division, Moreno would be a top enforcer, overseeing hundreds of lawyers who sue polluters and defend the government when corporations challenge regulations.
Moreno, a Hispanic with New York roots, handled environmental cases in President Clinton's Justice Department. But since then she's been a corporate lawyer, at times representing notable polluters. For several years she's been the top environmental lawyer for General Electric Corp., which has been linked to more than 100 Superfund sites. In various cases, some of which Moreno handled, GE argued that the government charges too much for cleanups; GE even tried to get the Superfund law declared unconstitutional.
Environmentalists have "a huge amount of concern" about Moreno, Alex Matthiessen, president of the Riverkeeper group, told Greenwire. A half-dozen Environmental Protection Agency lawyers, who are part of an effort to persuade the Senate to reject Moreno's nomination, told ProPublica that "they doubt that anyone who has recently defended GE would be effective" as an environmental prosecutor.
As for Tompkins, on June 17 the Senate confirmed her as the Interior Department's top lawyer. That agency oversees other federal land, including national parks and Indian reservations, and sets policies on endangered species, grazing and mining. Tompkins is a New Mexico-born Navajo who was adopted by a Quaker family and raised in New Jersey. She returned to the West for a Stanford law degree and worked on the Navajo Reservation and in private practice representing tribes. For the last six years she was a lawyer for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's administration.
Many environmentalists hoped the Interior job would go to a heavy-hitter from their ranks. Their candidates included white men such as John Leshy, who held the job under Clinton, and Todd True, an Earthjustice litigator in Seattle.
"The Obama administration is using environmental appointments to meet affirmative-action goals," a veteran environmentalist lawyer said.
Some perspective, though: Obama's array of appointees mirrors the percentages of blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans in our society. More than anything, these three controversial appointments highlight the environmental movement's chronic failure to recruit minorities into its top echelon. And pigeonholing people because of portions of their résumés is often unfair. Tompkins, for instance, also handled environmental cases during a stint in Clinton's Justice Department (in a prestigious honors program for recent law school grads).
Tompkins also looks promising in a respect that's often ignored. She could help resolve a bitter 13-year-old class-action lawsuit. Lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, a lawyer and member of Montana's Blackfeet Tribe, represents 500,000 Native American landowners, who claim that Interior cheated them and their ancestors on more than 100 years of royalties for oil, timber and grazing leases. Interior's records are such a shambles that it's anybody's guess how much money is involved. A judge last year suggested a $455 million settlement — an insult considering that the plaintiffs claim they're owed $47 billion. But Cobell says she'd like to negotiate a reasonable compromise. Tompkins, the first Native American serving as Interior's solicitor, seems perfectly qualified to do that.
Ray Ring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the magazine's senior correspondent, based in Bozeman, Montana.