Obama’s record on Western environmental issues

  • Photo illustration, Barack Obama in Death Valley.

    Istock, White house photo office
  • President Barack Obama, looking slightly uncomfortable in a cowboy hat a supporter handed him during a campaign stop in 2007.

    LM Otero, AP
  • Jared Blumenfeld, EPA Region 9 administrator, addresses the crowd at a rally outside EPA headquarters in San Francisco last January that called for environmental justice for Kettleman City and other communities.

    Bradley Angel
  • U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar speaks during a public meeting on offshore drilling in April 2009. A year later, the Obama administration would propose increasing offshore drilling just days before the Gulf oil spill.

    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Desert tortoise pens at the Ivanpah site in the Mojave Desert.

    Bureau of Land Management
  • An artist's rendering of solar panels on the site.

    Brightsource Energy

In the late fall of 2008, the staff of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility gathered at the Airlie Retreat Center in Virginia's horse country to plot strategies for a new day dawning: Barack Obama had just been elected president, promising fresh progress on issues that had frustrated environmentalists throughout the eight years of George W. Bush. Jeffrey Ruch, PEER's executive director, didn't want to waste any time. "The focus of all of our discussions was how to take advantage of the new green Obama administration," he says. "We were going over all the ground that Clinton had gained, all that had been lost under Bush, and focusing on what could be revived."

PEER, Ruch says, "acts as a shelter for battered staff -- people come to us and say, 'So-and-so is being persecuted, please intervene and stop it.' " The group also monitors morale within the federal agencies that enforce environmental laws. In the Bush era, PEER defended muzzled biologists and stood up for whistleblowers; the group also helped expose how mid-level managers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rewrote scientific data. Ruch and his cohorts believed the "culture of fear" the U.S. Inspector General found inside Bush's Department of Interior would be replaced by one of transparency and respect for science; they predicted that the Environmental Protection Agency -- which, under President Bill Clinton, "affirmatively intervened" when states failed to enforce the Clean Air and Water acts -- would once again seize stalled cases from scofflaw states.

"We talked about all the 'overfile' petitions we'd give to U.S. EPA to go to the states and say, 'Hey, what the heck is going on?' " Ruch remembers. "We talked about how long it would take to do that, and made sure everybody had templates to move forward efficiently. We strategized about how to induce the new administration to appoint whistleblowers -- to bring back reformers who had been pushed out in the previous administration. We were optimistic, even to the point of enthusiasm."

About a month later, Obama started making nominations for key posts at the federal agencies. Ruch and his staff envisioned dream teams, including a plain-spoken Westerner, Arizona Congressman Raúl Grijalva, for Interior secretary. PEER was among 106 environmental groups that endorsed Grijalva; they liked his strong stands on issues like mining reform and endangered species protection. And it didn't seem like a pipedream: Interior secretary usually goes to a Westerner, twice in the last century to an Arizonan. Grijalva had served on the House Natural Resources Committee, and as a Latino, he fit into the new administration's interest in cabinet diversity. Sources inside Obama's transition team confirmed that Grijalva was high on the short list.

But on Dec. 17, 2008, Obama announced that he had picked another Westerner instead: the Stetson-wearing descendent of a long line of ranchers, Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar.

"When Salazar bounded out in that (debut) press conference wearing his cowboy hat, saying in his statement that 'my top priority as secretary of the Interior is energy independence' -- he compared it to the Moon shot -- I thought, 'This guy is going to make Gale Norton (Bush's first Interior secretary) sound like John Muir,' " Ruch says.

Ruch's take on Western environmental politics, coming from PEER's Washington, D.C., headquarters, might seem a little hyperbolic. But many Western environmental groups backed Grijalva, too, among them Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Pacific Biodiversity Institute. And several of them took Salazar's appointment hard. "He was picked because he'd prioritize energy development on public lands," says Kierán Suckling, the outspoken executive director of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. Suckling now sees that moment as a harbinger of failure: "Obama," he says, "has either declined to lead or led in the wrong direction on virtually every issue that matters."

Suckling is disappointed that the Obama administration so far has replicated the Bush decisions "on wolves and grizzly bears, on the Sacramento Bay Delta, on sage grouse." He had high hopes, he says, for Jane Lubchenco, the Oregon marine biologist Obama picked to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but wonders why she ended up telling Congress that breaching the Snake River dams to save salmon was "an option of last resort."

Worst of all, Suckling says, Obama has failed to articulate a clear policy on greenhouse gases. "He never used the bully pulpit to go out and twist arms and make something happen on climate," Suckling says. "He never told Congress what to do."

High Country News Classifieds