Champions go both ways

Obama's federal appointees share a green streak

  • “This is one of the biggest environmental cases ever filed — like the spotted owl and salmon.” —Laird Lucas, lead attorney for a Western Watersheds Project lawsuit against the Interior Department, seeking better protection for sage grouse — including grazing and drilling reductions — on 25 million acres of federal sagebrush in the Interior West. The first hearing was April 16 in an Idaho federal court.

    Darreli Pruett, USGS

When Ned Farquhar was appointed to a key position in the Interior Department on April 7, the nation's biggest environmental group, the Sierra Club, seemed ecstatic. The agency has immense power over environmental policies in the West, managing 500 million acres of federal land, endangered species programs, mining and drilling leases. As the deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals, Farquhar will be "an environmental champion," gushed Sierra Clubber Matt Kirby in the Lay of the Land blog.

Farquhar has proved his green mettle: He worked several years for the Natural Resources Defense Council and advocated for clean energy around the West from his base in Albuquerque. Before that, he advised New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on such issues.

Farquhar opposes conventional coal-fired power plants and oil-shale developments that contribute to climate change, so he's "an excellent choice to help oversee the very departments that are often busy leasing to industries that exacerbate the climate crisis," Kirby wrote. "How cool is that?"

As of early April, according to The Washington Post, the Obama administration had nominated about 150 people to fill "senior positions" in various agencies. Ranking just below secretaries, these people do most of the bossing of civil servants and tweaking of regulations. More candidates are being evaluated to fill another 330 senior positions.

The selection of Farquhar points to an emerging pattern. So far, at least 10 people with ties to environmental groups or other conservation efforts have been named to fill senior positions. They include:

David Hayes, a former senior fellow at the World Wildlife Fund and chairman of the board of American Rivers, is the new deputy Interior secretary (the agency's #2 job).

Tom Strickland, who helped create the Great Outdoors Colorado program (using lottery revenues for open space and wildlife habitat), is Interior's new assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.

Will Shafroth, who has 15 years' experience running the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund and the Colorado Conservation Land Trust, is Interior's new deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.

Rhea Suh, from Los Altos, Calif., is Interior's new assistant secretary for policy management and budget; previously, she supervised grants to environmental groups (and sometimes to High Country News) for the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Cathy Zoi, from Palo Alto, Calif., is the Energy Department's new assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy; previously, she was CEO of Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection.

Cynthia Giles, the Environmental Protection Agency's new assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance, was a leader in the Conservation Law Foundation, which bills itself as "New England's leading environmental advocacy organization."

And so on. They're not radical environmentalists, and they have other credentials, including previous government service or working relationships with Cabinet members such as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. But they likely share a tendency to lean green.

That tendency will be one thread in an administration that has some appointees with hazier environmental records. It may become a stronger thread, as environmental groups hope to place even more of their allies or executives in key federal jobs. But don't forget, what goes around comes around.

When industries have rapport with U.S. presidents, they get their people appointed to key jobs. Thus, former timber lobbyist Mark Rey served in President George W. Bush's Agriculture Department as undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, pressuring the Forest Service to cooperate with timber companies. Bush's Interior Department had a series of industrial allies as deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks: first, Paul Hoffman, former head of the Cody, Wyo., Chamber of Commerce, who pressured the National Park Service to cooperate with park gateway towns like Cody, and then Julie MacDonald -- "a civil engineer with no formal training in natural sciences," according to AP -- who rewrote wildlife scientists' opinions on endangered species policies.

When industry appointees pressure agencies, environmentalists complain loudly. When environmentalist appointees apply the pressure, industries will bellyache. Tension is built into agencies like Interior and Agriculture: They must preserve natural resources while allowing development and use. Yet environmentalists and industries tend to have a much simpler view. Whoever is out of power claims that the other side is violating lofty principles. And principles aside, each side seeks leverage, anyway -- the pendulum keeps on swinging.

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