Longform

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

Page 6 of 9

In the Senate, his efforts to build coalitions across the aisle made him seem like a plodder, unable to shift gears with the political winds. Affability in high office is often suspect; when Obama tapped him as Interior Secretary, over more outspoken Bush critics and environmental darlings such as Arizona congressman Raúl Grijalva, the New York Times fretted that Salazar was too mild for the job. "He should surround himself with a core group of dedicated, quality people, and remember that being nice won't cut it," huffed one editorial.

So far, Salazar has been packing Interior with dedicated people — with lots of Colorado connections. In short order he named former Senate candidate Strickland, whom he'd served with on the board of Great Outdoors Colorado, as his chief of staff; Will Shafroth, former executive director of GOCO, as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks; and Chris Henderson, Denver mayor John Hickenlooper's top financial advisor, to oversee the DOI's $3 billion share of economic stimulus funds. During the confirmation process, Salazar had pledged that the DOI would be an agency that served all of America, not just the West, but he seemed bent on transforming its leadership into a Colorado cabal.

The rapid enlistment of homies may suggest that Salazar isn't yet comfortable in his new, global role. Despite the flurry of public appearances during his first few weeks on the job, he seemed most at ease during trips back home, visiting the Great Sand Dunes or joking with local officials on a tour of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge, many of whom he'd worked with years ago to get the former chemical weapons plant cleaned up. But tapping Strickland and Shafroth also signal that he's serious about using the Great Outdoors Colorado model for revitalizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has been underfunded by Congress almost every year since it was created in 1964.

It's not clear yet how he plans to pay for a massive upgrade in conservation projects — "We're at the conceptual level at this stage," he cautioned in a recent interview. But the likely mechanism will be dedicating a portion of royalty revenues to such projects. An eighth of the revenues from some of the tracts in the recent offshore-lease sale in New Orleans will be set aside for state parks acquisition and other conservation measures, the first time federal royalty funds have been earmarked in that fashion.

Funneling cash to conservation, though, hasn't allayed skepticism about the Secretary's other initiatives — especially his push for a New Energy Frontier. Oil and gas representatives, such as Smith at IPAMS, wonder whether a "double standard" will be applied that opens up public lands for renewable-energy producers while barring others. Environmentalists fear the impact of additional roads and transmission lines on wildlife habitat and migration corridors that have already been badly fragmented by the drilling boom; they point to the not-so-green effects of an army of wind towers in northern California that have killed thousands of birds. And other analysts question the technical feasibility of the whole idea.

"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.

"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."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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