Longform

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

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"The cloud of MacDonald's overreaching," Devaney wrote, "and the actions of those who enabled and assisted her, have caused the unnecessary expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars to re-issue decisions and litigation costs...action is necessary to restore the integrity of the ESA program, and the morale and reputation of the FWS in the eyes of the public and of Congress."

MacDonald resigned from the DOI in 2007. But many of "those who enabled and assisted her" still work there; even some of the political appointees have found ways to burrow into career-service positions. "People think that after the inauguration, everything's going to change," Stefferud says. "But the Bush administration was really good at embedding its people far down in the agency."

In its waning days, the Bush administration quietly introduced new rules that nullified key requirements of the Endangered Species Act, allowing federal projects to proceed without FWS consultation if the lead agency decided there was no threat to a vulnerable species. The move was presented as a way of making the review process less bureaucratic and redundant, but critics protested that the administrative measure would remove FWS expertise from the process and effectively gut the ESA.

On March 3, in conjunction with a ceremony at DOI headquarters marking the department's 160th birthday, President Obama rescinded the new rules. "For more than three decades, the Endangered Species Act has successfully protected our nation's most threatened wildlife," he said. "We should be looking for ways to improve it — not weaken it."


Over the past few weeks, the new administration has put the brakes on a slew of "midnight regulations" dealing with public lands that were hustled into the Federal Register in the last days of the Bush era. Bush's people did the same thing with many end-game maneuvers of the Clinton administration. But Secretary Salazar seemed to take a grim satisfaction in this particular rite of the transition of power, making many of the announcements himself.

In halting the Utah lease sales, he criticized the BLM for failing to consult adequately with park authorities before auctioning oil and gas rights near Canyonlands National Park, Dinosaur National Monument and Nine Mile Canyon. He then scuttled the previous administration's efforts to expand oil shale research and leasing in western Colorado, saying the leases were too large, the royalty rates too low, the technology still unproven. Instead, he offered a slower, more modest phase-in of R&D leases.

He made a similar move regarding energy development offshore, calling for more research and public comment while denouncing the Bush administration's efforts to ram through a new five-year plan for the Outer Continental Shelf — one that spurned his own efforts as a senator to require the DOI to make greater provisions for offshore renewable-energy sources, including wind, wave and tidal power.

"In my view, it was a headlong rush of the worst kind," he said. "It was a process rigged to force various decisions based on bad information. It was a process tilted toward the usual energy players, while renewable-energy companies and the interests of American consumers and taxpayers were being overlooked."

Yet even while offering one rebuke after another to his predecessors and mocking their policy as "drill-drill-drill," Salazar was careful to offer an olive branch to the fossil-fuels crowd. "The oil and gas industry should not see the Obama administration as their enemy," he said, pledging that the industry "will have a seat at the table."

In fact, several of Salazar's myriad press conferences seemed designed to reassure the usual energy players and alarm his green supporters. He affirmed an FWS decision to remove Endangered Species Act protection for gray wolves in the northern Rockies, calling the breed's resurgence "one of the great success stories" since the ESA's creation. And far from supporting a moratorium on offshore drilling, two weeks ago he flew to New Orleans to tour an offshore platform and personally oversee the first major Gulf of Mexico lease sale of the Obama era, which brought in $703 million in bids on prime sites off the shores of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Such efforts to appease warring constituencies are characteristic of Salazar's earnest, let's-work-this-out centrism. His entire career has been a search for the elusive middle. In Colorado he served as a bridge between agricultural and development interests, as well as between some of the state's more rural, isolated areas, such as his own native San Luis Valley, and the halls of power. Yet he also injected himself in controversies that offered him little or no political capital — such as trying to mediate a decades-long dispute over community grazing rights on a private ranch, or using his power as attorney general to push for the release of documents related to the Columbine shootings that other law-enforcement agencies wanted to keep sealed. Throughout it all, he seemed driven less by ideology or fear of criticism than a kind of benign pragmatism.

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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