Obama picks a moderate


It's not surprising that Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity and Jon Marvel of the Western Watersheds Project are disappointed in Barack Obama's choice for Interior secretary, Colorado Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar.

The two activists have tapped the federal courts for the last two decades in their efforts to stop overgrazing, logging and other activities on public land. Suckling, of Tucson, Ariz., and Marvel, of Hailey, Idaho, have made frequent use of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

They, and some other small environmental groups, were hoping that Obama would pick an Interior secretary willing to buck the political power of the states and Congress and leap over all other barriers to the achievement of their goals. Instead, they got in Salazar, a nominee whom Interior Department solicitor Bill Myers describes as "a cowboy hat-wearing, Western Democrat in the mold of (former Interior Secretary) Cecil Andrus." In other words, a moderate.

Salazar, a former Colorado attorney general, is also the former director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. He's a fifth-generation Hispanic Coloradan who grew up on a farm and owns a ranch. As a senator, he has fought against oil and gas drilling on Colorado's Roan Plateau, and he challenged the Bush administration's gung-ho efforts to spur oil shale development. He's a great example of "Next West" Democrats who have expanded the party's influence across the region.

He's also pro-gun, and he's not Raul Grijalva, the Tucson congressman that many environmentalists hoped would get the job. Marvel, who says one of his goals is pushing livestock grazing off the public lands altogether, put it clearly: "We're not very happy with Ken Salazar. After all, he's a rancher."

On the other hand, national environmental groups have all praised Obama's choice. Their power base is in Washington, D.C., and they have lots of alumni on Obama's transition team and in his inner circle.

They are confident Salazar will help them advance an environmental agenda that includes transforming the American economy to combat climate change. This is a mind-bogglingly ambitious agenda that can only be completed by legislative changes in Congress, in the states and even in local governments.That why Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, which represents 95 grassroots groups in the state, thinks Salazar is a good fit.

"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."

Western Democrats have expanded their power by appealing to the new urban and exurban residents attracted to the region by its beauty, and by gaining some support from people in traditional industries like agriculture and mining. Obama's re-election could hang on how well he keeps this uneasy coalition together.

Fixing the economy, fighting two wars and addressing climate change are bound to be higher priorities than the traditional Western land battles over endangered species, motorized recreation, logging and mining. This could give Salazar a wide berth to make decisions in the next two years.

He will be tested soon by his decision whether to list as endangered the sage grouse, a bird that signals the health of millions of acres of sagebrush steppe habitat across 11 western states. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must decide by May whether to list the bird in a case filed on behalf of the Western Watersheds Project, Marvel's group.

If the sage grouse is listed, it could have the same kind of impact on public-land ranching that the spotted owl had on logging in the Pacific Northwest's old-growth forests in the late 1980s. It also could limit the development of wind, geothermal and solar energy across the Western deserts, as well as new utility line connections to spread-out alternative energy developments.

In 2004, scientists said that the sage grouse decision could have gone either way. Now, with West Nile Virus killing thousands of grouse, the Bush administration's determination to quickly bring on oil and gas, and fires destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of habitat, many environmentalists believe that the agency will have no choice but to list.

If that happens, Salazar will earn his keep if he can find common ground among a lot of ornery Westerners.

Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the environmental writer for IdahoStatesman.com in Boise, Idaho, and the author of Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Salazar's potential and the pessimism of the environmental community
Ian Bowen
Ian Bowen
Dec 29, 2008 05:28 PM
I as well am somewhat skeptical of Salazar's political ideas because he is a rancher (though a Democrat), but I think that he has potential to do good or to hurt the West. While I was hoping for either Mark or Tom Udall to be appointed and I understand the reasons that some environmental groups are dissatisfied with president-elect Obama's choice, Salazar is, after all, a moderate and a centrist, as Mr. Barker stated. What concerns me most of all, however, is that environmental groups are focusing on stopping climate change, and not on preparing for it. Of course we can reduce our carbon emissions. But like it or not, the climate is changing, and we are going to have to adjust as it does. We're going to be seeing more extreme weather in the coming decades, meaning drought in the West and flooding in the East, more powerful storms and hurricanes, etc. What we really need to do - especially in the West - is conserve. Most climate models predict a prolonged drought in the Colorado River Basin, whose water supplies many cities with water but also grows crops in the Imperial Valley that combined with the Central Valley (which will also see prolonged drought) make up a huge portion of the US's agriculture. If municipalities don't drastically reduce water usage (a complete ban on watering lawns would be a good start) and farmers don't use better and more efficient crop-growing methods, at some point we're going to start seeing food shortages, skyrocketing crop prices, dying river ecosystems (to say nothing of the Colorado or Sacramento deltas or the Owens Valley), and municipal water shortages. The other consideration is that eventually our reservoirs are going to silt up - no more storage, no more hydropower, no more subsidization of Reclamation water, and even higher crop prices.

Changing our power grid over to renewables is also problematic due to the sheer cost. If we conserve electricity there will be lower demand and less capacity to build, meaning less capital spent, fewer minerals mined, and a quicker transition. In the Southwest this could be helped further by switching from air conditioning to swamp coolers. As an added bonus, electric bills would be lower and consumers would be free to spend more money in the marketplace, which would eventually go to resolving other issues, like the financial crisis.

I'm aware that this whole thing is far from flawless, but it's just a general idea of what needs to happen.
Salazar greenwashed by Gang Green
Socratic Gadfly
Socratic Gadfly
Dec 29, 2008 07:33 PM
Rocky, you said it. WASHINGTON enviro groups, aka Gang Green, signed off on Salazar because they made their Democratic Party/Obama bed and now have to sleep in it.

But, in case you had either forgotten or were unaware, Jeff St. Clair reminds us at CounterPunch (http://www.counterpunch.org/stclair12192008.html) that rancher Salazar once threatened to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep it from listing the black-footed prairie dog as an endangered species. Yet, despite this and his anti-environmentalism whenever the word “energy” is mentioned, Sierra Club, National Audubon Society and other Gang Green members all greenwashed him.

You're also being "generous" as to what he did, and did not, do re Roan Plateau oil/gas.

And, given his stance on the prairie dog, I'll bet you two Yellowstone wildfires the sage grouse does NOT get ESA listing.
Black-footed Prairie Dog
Jan 02, 2009 11:24 AM
Is the Black-footed Prairie Dog some crazy hybrid between the Black-tailed Prairie Dog and the Black-footed Ferret? Talk about endangered!
I deserved that, didn't I
Socratic Gadfly
Socratic Gadfly
Jan 02, 2009 10:31 PM
Tis the black-tailed prairie dog over which Salazar threatened suit.
Deserved that
Jan 02, 2009 10:47 PM
You're a good sport, Gadfly, and I wish you well on your rants, which folks need to hear. I figure that a grumpy but well-informed activist can be a Sage Grouse. We do need more of those.
I like it!
Socratic Gadfly
Socratic Gadfly
Jan 03, 2009 07:17 PM
Sage Grouse. That's going to be my second blogging alias.

BTW, I'm at:

Salazar for Interior article
Michael Welsh
Michael Welsh
Dec 30, 2008 08:31 AM
Perhaps the solution to the griping about Salazar's nomination for Interior secretary is to have "Gang Green" push for cabinet-level status for the EPA. Salazar has many legal issues like the Indian trust-fund accounts, as well as management of millions of acres of land already designated for grazing, mineral development, recreation, not to mention the multiple-use National Park Service. It is interesting that none of the bloggers on this site or elsewhere who oppose Salazar say anything about those issues, for which prudence is as important as principle.
Salazar, Vilsack, and Obama
michael kirkpatrick
michael kirkpatrick
Dec 30, 2008 12:19 PM
I understand, as Rocky points out, the probable wisdom of approaching Western environmental issues through diplomacy - extending a carrot rather than raising a stick at traditional and/or extractive users of the public lands.

But there does have to be balance, and the past eight years - and going way back to the 1872 Mining Law and the historic (and extreme) undervaluing of grazing on public lands - there's a lot of very ingrained imbalance that needs correcting. I too am wary of Salazar (as well as Vilsack for Ag Secretary), as I think we're at a point where we require a bolder, Grijalva-like vision to confront a situation that is way out-of-balance.

Climate change, as one commenter mentioned, is an essential subject for environmental groups ('Gang Green') to engage in. Aside from anticipation, one of the ways that climate change can be mitigated is through enforcement and transparency of existing protections on public lands. Drafting a Plan B to cope with climate change is good planning, but defending a Plan A that does everything possible to sustain our rapidly shifting equilibrium is even more crucial.

I voted and campaigned for Ken Salazar when he ran for Senate. He was tried and succeeded in stealing the thunder from the Republican stronghold that once was much of Colorado. I am truly enthused about Obama's choices to head EPA and NOAA, and more broadly how these picks speak to respect and appreciation for science and the environment. I just wish that his choices for Interior and Agriculture had drawn from the same reservoir of courage.

I'll be among those watching carefully to see whether the sage grouse also gets a post in the Obama administration.
Re: Salazar, Vilsack, and Obama
Ian Bowen
Ian Bowen
Dec 30, 2008 09:34 PM

long VS. short range
marty weiss
marty weiss
Dec 31, 2008 02:18 PM
Long range, prairie dogs may break some cattle legs but they keep western lands from turning to concrete. Without them, bio-diversity and eco-viability would decline. Long range, fire is a natural cyclic event out west, with an essential role to play in the ecosystem established over millions of years. Long range, cattle are a plague on the land that never should have been brought here by Euro-nobility in the first place, and left alone, would die out altogether, unlike bison which naturally live here and enhance the ecosystem.
Short range, vested interests will try to use legislation and crony connections to fight Mother Nature and those of us with good sense. Their future doesn't look good, either way. Maybe if someone taught them to read and sent them to a class on environmental conservation, they could learn to make money without continuing to destroy their own home.
Obama's choices, like the Rev. Rick are mystifying. But he is consistent about us being The UNITED States. Whether good sense or vested interests prevail is in no doubt, long range.