Ken Salazar wants windmills in the ocean, but first he'll have to save the Interior Department

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But as Salazar seeks to strike his own version of balance, former DOI officials and veteran employees say that his greatest task will be to reform the toxic culture inside the sprawling bureaucracy. The department has long been subject to internecine feuding and inertia, they say, and the Bush administration only compounded the problem with its mania for secrecy and covert efforts to ignore or manipulate science in its push for energy development.

"I don't think any individual decision is nearly as important as the cultural change," says Sally Stefferud, a retired fishery biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "Eight years of secrecy has really changed things. Even without it, every step takes so much time — and we're dealing with species that are going down rapidly."

Salazar says he's confident that he can take the DOI in a new direction. He remembers fondly the crowd that greeted him that first day on the job. "The employees of the Department of the Interior are good people, and they want to do a good job," he told Westword. "They're open to doing things in a new way. My major priority, the New Energy Frontier, cuts across each of the agencies, from the Bureau of Land Management to the Bureau of Reclamation, the United States Geological Survey, the National Park Service. These cross-cutting themes will help us break down some of the walls."

Two weeks into his presidency, George W. Bush handed the job of reshaping national energy policy to a new task force chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney. Environmental groups soon cried foul, charging that the group was meeting in secret with major oil and gas executives — many of them large donors to the Bush campaign and longtime colleagues of Bush and Cheney in the oil business — and releasing almost no information about its activities.

Coverage of the super-secret task force soon faded, lost in a maelstrom of more pressing news: the September 11 attacks, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq. Despite lawsuits and some dogged reporting by the Washington Post, few details about the group's meetings and the decisions reached have ever come to light. But subsequent events suggest that the task force played a critical part in developing the administration's master plan for domestic energy and particularly for the Department of the Interior.

The plan was audacious yet stealthy, multi-faceted yet single-minded. It repudiated not only the so-called "elitist" environmental policies of the Clinton era, but also the concept that public lands should be managed for the benefit of many different constituencies. The Bushies spoke favorably of multi-use in public while privately pursuing one higher, relentless purpose.

Bush's choice for Interior Secretary, Gale Norton, was a former Colorado attorney general, like Salazar. But Norton had also served as lead attorney for the enviro-baiting Mountain States Legal Foundation, launched by James Watt, Reagan's famously combative point man at the DOI ("Grazin' Hell," April 7, 2005). Norton departed in 2006 for a job at Royal Dutch Shell, but during her tenure, several key appointed positions at the department were filled with former energy lobbyists — including Deputy Secretary Steven Griles, a member of Cheney's task force, who resigned in 2004 and was later convicted of obstruction of justice in the Jack Ambramoff scandal.

Among regional managers, there was little doubt that DOI policy was being forged in the White House. "The oil and gas program became the predominant program in the Bureau of Land Management," recalls Ann Morgan, a former state director for the BLM who left in 2002 and now works for the Wilderness Society. "Everything else — water and air quality, wildlife — took a back seat."

Long known as the "Bureau of Livestock and Mining," the BLM had been nudged toward a stronger role in conservation and wilderness planning under the Clinton administration. But Norton soon struck a deal in a dispute with Utah officials that virtually halted the BLM's ability to make recommendations for wilderness designation on its lands; the deal trashed years of costly wilderness studies and opened BLM lands across the West to possible development. And a series of internal memoranda issued during Bush's first term made it clear that the agency was now expected to crank out a record number of energy leases on its 256 million acres, which comprise 40 percent of all the land managed by the federal government. The memos directed land managers "to proceed with leasing even while applicable land use plans were being revised," to suspend lease stipulations and grant exclusions to environmental laws whenever possible, and to figure out how to fit more wells on existing leases, with less time allotted for public comment and protest.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast