"In the rush for green energy, do we destroy the green infrastructure we need?" asks Pete Morton, a senior resource economist for the Wilderness Society. "The cheapest way to get renewables out there is to put them on rooftops that are already connected to the grid. One of the problems of putting a lot of solar in the desert is the estimates of 50 percent or more energy loss in the transmission lines. Yes, there's potential, but what's the net potential?"

For his part, Salazar talks blandly about making tradeoffs. "We will have to deal with impacts to the land and wildlife habitat," he says. "We can do that, I think, in a thoughtful manner...and accomplish both protection of our landscape and development of the renewable resource."

Two critical tests of Salazar's position on the energy-versus-environment debate are looming in the next few months. One involves charges by the superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park that Bush's DOI ignored scientific concerns about imperiled fish in order to lower water flows and optimize hydroelectric power from Glen Canyon Dam. PEER director Ruch says his group pressed Salazar to demonstrate his commitment to science-based policy by restoring the water the park needs — but received no response.

New Interior sheriff Ken Salazar with his deputy, Tom Strickland, announces a new ethics policy at the federal center in Lakewood.
New Interior sheriff Ken Salazar with his deputy, Tom Strickland, announces a new ethics policy at the federal center in Lakewood.
Economist Pete Morton contends that the Bush drilling boom, the biggest in twenty years, encouraged energy speculators and cheated taxpayers.
Economist Pete Morton contends that the Bush drilling boom, the biggest in twenty years, encouraged energy speculators and cheated taxpayers.


To read Inspector General Earl Devaney's reports, download them here and here. Read previous Westword stories about the Roan Plateau here.

"The only thing that happened was the park superintendent was summoned to Washington and asked how we got the documents," Ruch says. "We would view this as a good opportunity for [Salazar] to put flesh on the bones of what he's saying."

The second test is in Salazar's back yard: western Colorado's Roan Plateau ("Raiding the Roan," January 1, 2004). One of the most biologically diverse areas in the state and a trove of natural gas supplies, the plateau is largely controlled by the BLM, which auctioned gas leases last August after years of protest. The leases are now being challenged in court by environmental groups. Senator Salazar opposed the BLM's plan, favoring a state proposal that would allow a more gradual leasing process; Secretary Salazar has since indicated that he'll review the arrangement and issue a decision within a few weeks.

Natural-gas drilling has dropped off dramatically since the frenzy of last summer, a result of sinking prices and rising reserves. Still, reneging on the Roan leases would be viewed quite differently by the gas industry than halting the Utah sale. "We run the risk of starting to look like Venezuela or Russia when we change the rules of the game midstream," Smith warns. "The Secretary has every right to review decisions. But you've got to be careful to not discourage investment in clean energy across the West. If companies that have valid leases aren't allowed to develop them, that would really send the wrong message."

Yet the Roan auction is also a glaring example of the Interior Department's willingness to bypass the communities most affected by land-use decisions. The BLM received more than 70,000 comments opposing widespread leasing on the plateau — comments not only from environmentalists, but from mayors and county leaders, tourism groups, hunters and other locals. The final plan incorporated almost none of that input.

"The last few years, you wouldn't think the BLM thought that the oil and gas resources belonged to the American public," says former BLM state director Morgan. "It was for industry to take whatever they wanted. If nothing else, I would like to see communities getting more involved in those decisions."

In 1993, Jim Baca became director of the BLM under the Clinton administration. A former journalist and New Mexico land commissioner, Baca was determined to overhaul the agency's good-old-boy dealings with ranchers, mining interests and energy producers.

Baca lasted less than a year. The strong support he'd initially received from Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt quickly evaporated, as Babbitt faced an increasingly hostile Congress and pressure from governors across the West. Many BLM state directors, Baca discovered, had back-door access to lawmakers from those states and were eager to advance their own agendas.

"Out attempt was to make these BLM lands much more than the playground for oil and gas and livestock and mining," he says. "We were going to start with grazing reform. But then everything fell flat because Babbitt didn't have the strength to go fight the Senate — and the relationships between state directors and the senators from their states."

Baca went on to become mayor of Albuquerque and is now New Mexico's natural-resources trustee, a state position appointed by the governor. He has some advice for Salazar: "After eight years, the state directors at BLM are probably ready to go. They should be carefully looked at. That's part of the culture that really has to change."

Salazar has several advantages Babbitt didn't have. He has strong allies in the Senate, a brother in the House of Representatives and considerable rapport, for the moment, with his president, who arrived in Washington as an unlikely, rising-star freshman senator the same year Salazar did. But his early moves have already ruffled some Republican grouse; Utah senator Robert Bennett recently stalled confirmation of DOI Deputy Secretary David Hayes over the canceled lease sale. In an ideal world, it may be possible to base public-land policy solely on science, but Interior is still a highly politicized entity, inside and out.

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Despite having only recently been appointed Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar has ruffled a lot of feathers, such as recently announcing an end to Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s oyster farm lease for environmental concerns. It is not an extremely popular decision, especially since millions of dollars is on the line. But I am glad environmental concerns trumps money, and building offshore wind farm will open doors to innovative types of renewable energy. However, I hope more studies and research are infused into this to determine the severity (if any) of negative impacts on the environment.