Trump’s Choice for Interior: What Will It Mean for Colorado?

Whatever surprises might be in store as President-elect Donald Trump finalizes his list of future Cabinet members, here’s one pretty safe bet: His nominee for Secretary of the Interior won’t be anyone from Colorado. The state narrowly tilted blue for Hillary Clinton in the presidential race, and many of its Republican leaders were slow to embrace Trump as the GOP nominee or actively distanced themselves from him. Count on Trump to snub us in return.

Interior isn’t one of the more high-profile Cabinet positions, but it could potentially have tremendous impact on public lands and quality of life in Colorado and other western states. The Department of the Interior controls one-fifth of the land mass of the United States, and that land contains half of the country’s coal and a third of its oil and gas. The secretary is supposed to manage all of this for the benefit of backpackers and energy producers, ranchers and miners, wilderness advocates and off-road enthusiasts — in short, to find some mythical “balance” between the protection and exploitation of the country’s natural resources.

Because so many of the public-land holdings stretch from Alaska to Texas, it’s customary for the DOI chief to be plucked from the West. Six of the previous 51 Secretaries of the Interior have come from Colorado, including Henry Moore Teller (1882-85, under President Chester Arthur), Hubert Work (1923-28, the Harding and Coolidge administrations) and Oscar Chapman (1950-53, Truman). But the most recent three from the Centennial State have best exemplified just how politicized, complex and contradictory the DOI’s mission has become – something that’s unlikely to change in the Trump era.

A generation ago, Ronald Reagan attempted to mess with tree-huggers’ heads by appointing James G. Watt to the Interior post. Former president of the Denver-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, Watt was a provocateur who promised to open millions of acres of public lands for drilling, all the while spouting biblical admonitions about man’s subjugation of the earth. But Watt’s approach was so confrontational that he quickly alienated many lawmakers, and an impolitic quip soon led to his resignation.

In 2001, George W. Bush tapped another MSLF alum, Gale Norton, for the job. Norton was more effective than Watt in making oil and gas leases a top priority, but her tenure was also marked by political stalemates (such as the long-running battle over development of the Roan Plateau) and ethics investigations. By the time she departed in 2006 for a job at Royal Dutch Shell, several key appointed positions at Interior had been filled with former energy-industry lobbyists — including Deputy Secretary Steven Griles, who resigned in 2004 and was later convicted of obstruction of justice in the Jack Abramoff scandal.

Barack Obama also turned to Colorado for his first Interior boss, Ken Salazar. But much of Salazar’s four-year tenure was spent in crisis mode. Cleaning up the mess the Bush administration had left behind in the Minerals Management Service, where employees had failed to collect millions in energy lease royalties due the taxpayers while partying with oil execs. Dealing with the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the badly mismanaged wild-horse program. Settling long-simmering lawsuits over ripoffs of Indian trust funds and other controversies. As Salazar discovered, it’s difficult to alter the course — or the culture — in a bureaucracy as large and ponderous as Interior.

For a guy who’s vowed not to load his administration with the usual corporate lobbyists and Washington insiders, Trump has stacked his transition team with energy moguls, climate deniers, anti-EPA crusaders and other highly vested interests. His short list of Interior nominees reportedly includes such wild cards as Sarah Palin and multimillionaire Forrest Lucas, founder of Lucas Oil Products. Appointing either one of them seems like a guaranteed path to re-energizing the environmental movement and producing more lawsuits and stalemates, while accomplishing little. Whoever gets the job, it’s likely that his appointee will be ideologically inclined toward the drill-baby-drill mantra, much in the same vein as Watt and Norton (despite the fact that only a third of the public lands leases are actively producing right now because economic conditions aren’t optimal for boosting production). But as the new secretary’s predecessors soon learned, and Trump’s appointee will have to learn all over again, the inertia inside the department isn’t easily overcome.

Sadly, the process of climate change — which neither candidate was eager to address during the dismal presidential campaign — poses a greater threat to our national parks and other public resources than Sarah Palin popping a few wolves by helicopter. The failure to devise any kind of coherent energy plan that provides a speedy transition from fossil fuels to renewable-energy sources may be the most damaging legacy, for Colorado and the rest of the country, to result from yet another shift at Interior — one that’s likely to put the energy companies at the head of the table.
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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