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Changing of the guard at the Department of Interior

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Jodi Peterson | Apr 16, 2013 12:00 AM

Monday was Sally Jewell's first day on the job as the nation's new Secretary of Interior. She replaces Ken Salazar, Obama's first-term choice.

The second woman ever to serve as the head of Interior (Gale Norton, considered a nemesis of conservationists, was the first), Jewell is now in charge of 70,000 employees and 500 million acres of public land (and another billion offshore) and all the attendant uses and conflicts, from oil and gas development to solar and wind installations to recreation and grazing.

Sally Jewell
Sally Jewell

On her first day in the office, according to the White House, Jewell had meetings on "energy development, conservation, Indian Affairs and youth engagement." And longer-term, she's got a lot on her plate already: the BLM's new proposal for tightening regulations on fracking and horizontal drilling on public lands has been met with accusations of industry pandering (Greenwire subscription required). She's gotten letters from green groups asking her to push through a conservation plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to put a moratorium on coal mining in Wyoming's Powder River Basin. The final decision about building a road through Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge will be hers to make (Alaskan Sen. Lisa Murkowski wants the road and is the top Republican on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee that funds Jewell's agency). And she'll be overseeing the controversial decision to possibly list the sage grouse as endangered (which, of course, could have major impacts on energy development in the West).

As Salazar headed back to his fourth-generation family ranch in southern Colorado, he told Greenwire, "I wouldn't change any of the decisions I've made." He also noted that he's most proud of the fact that Interior was "scandal-free for four years and two months" under his watch – a sharp contrast to the manipulated science, corruption and in-office shenanigans that prevailed under the Bush administration (see our report on that eight-year soap opera, As Interior Turns).

Ken Salazar
Ken Salazar

Enviros found a lot to complain about in Salazar's actions – in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill they called for his resignation, and expressed dismay over the removal of wolves from the endangered species list and ongoing coal leasing in the West. They were disheartened by how quickly he backed away from the Wild Lands initiative in the face of Republican opposition, abandoning the program to give wilderness protection to some BLM lands just months after proposing it. He allowed oil companies to begin exploration in the Arctic (but did require them to show they'd meet environmental standards).

But in the plus column, he reined in the oh-so-corrupt Minerals Management Service with a set of reforms, pulled sensitive parcels near Utah national parks and monuments from energy leasing, and made strides in reforming oil and gas leasing on public lands. As Salazar said in a 2010 news conference, "Trade groups for the oil and gas industry need to understand they don't own the public lands.  Taxpayers do."

He proposed large-scale "solar energy zones" in six Western states, but cut the acreage by more than half after public comment on the possible damage to wildlife habitat and the amount of land that could be developed outside the zones. Under his watch, the feds streamlined the permitting process for renewable energy projects, and since 2009, 18 have been approved (none had been approved before then).

A 20-year moratorium on Grand Canyon-area uranium mining was put in place last year (and in March, the ban was upheld in court). Salazar gave the BLM the authority to manage its crown jewels, the National Landscape Conservation System, with an eye toward conservation, restoration and ecological connectivity (see Craig Childs' recent story about his adventures in Secret Getaways in the National Landscape Conservation System). He also trimmed Bush-era oil shale leasing, pulling back the offered acreage to about a third of what was originally proposed.

And we now have nine more national park units and 10 more National Wildlife Refuges than we did when Obama took office (and less money to manage them with, thanks to the sequester). The interminable Cobell v. Interior class action lawsuit finally got resolved, helping to repair relationships with the tribes and returning Indian trust funds owed for decades.

Salazar believed in “a new model of conservation, which focused on partnerships with private landowners and states,” said Christy Goldfuss, public lands project director at the Center for American Progress in a post at Fuelfix.com, which describes one example of those centrist instincts in operation:

One recent success came in the form of the tiny 2-inch dunes sagebrush lizard. As the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service mulled whether to put the lizard on the endangered species list, Texas Gov. Rick Perry used a meeting with Salazar to amplify concerns that protecting the reptile could halt drilling in the state.

After two years of deliberation and meetings with local stakeholders, the Interior Department decided last year not to designate the lizard as endangered, once landowners in Texas and New Mexico agreed to take steps to protect its habitat.

“We created 640,000 acres of conservation for the lizard but also allowed oil and gas development to move forward in the Permian Basin,” Salazar said. “It’s a huge win, and it’s how the Endangered Species Act should be used, in a way that you can accomplish both goals.”

Ken Salazar might not have been an environmentalist's dream, but he did some good and lasting things for the West. And Sally Jewell seems likely to continue his just-left-of-center approach. One key to understanding his policy actions was revealed in an interview with his brother John, in our 2011 profile "The Man Beneath the Hat":

John remembers his younger brother once getting into so much trouble at the ranch that their mother spanked him. Ken retreated outside to sulk atop a pile of dirt. That pile of dirt, though, turned out to be an anthill. "They just bit him all over his back," John recalls.  "I think he learned his lesson, that you're not supposed to sit on top of ant piles -- maybe that's what's shaped his career."

 

Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.

Photo of Ken Salazar courtesy of Flickr user norfolkdistrict.

 

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