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Salazar a curious pick for Secretary of the Interior

By Robert Cowin
December 22, 2008
File under: Cabinet, Environmental Policy, Obama


The democratic Senator from Colorado, Ken Salazar, has been tapped to be our new Secretary of the Interior.  While not an environmentalist by any stretch, Salazar has done an excellent job mediating tensions between energy development interests and land conservation in his home state.  He’s been a strong advocate for hunters and outdoorsman, but he’s also been supportive of energy exploration and development on public lands.  In short, he’s the definition of a centrist; perhaps even a little right of center.

Appointing a Westerner to preside over America’s natural resources cuts both ways.  They understand the unique sensitivities about the role conservation plays for those who love and use the outdoors, but they have also been strong proponents of mining and runaway development historically.  Is Salazar better than his predecessors?  Absolutely, but that’s not exactly saying a lot.  Bush appointees, Dirk Kempthorne and fellow Coloradan, Gale Ann Norton, have arguably presided over the biggest perversion of the office ever, weakening the Endangered Species Act and water quality protections, and putting commercial interests ahead of conservation virtually 100% of the time.  In fact, it’s fair to say that the office of the Secretary of the Interior has been a springboard for the erosion of environmental safeguards, far eclipsing the damage done to the office of EPA administrator.

This begs the question, why not appoint a sentinel for conservation?  Clearly the office of Secretary of the Interior has to balance commercial interests with conservation interests, but given that it has been so one-sided over the past decade, don’t we need an appointee who puts conservation first?  When the National Mining Association says they have an excellent relationship with you, chances are, you are not putting conservation first.  Salazar has been criticized by environmental groups for his votes in the Congress against raising fuel efficiency standards, support for off-shore drilling, and support for continued subsidies for the ranching and mining industries.  But Salazar has an 81% lifetime LCV voting record, so it’s simply not accurate to paint him as an enemy of the environment.

The simple fact is that President-elect Obama is a pragmatist, or a least his appointees up to this point suggest that he is.  The appointment of Salazar further reinforces this assertion because of his history of bridging the gap between conservation sensitivities and commercial interests; something that will serve him well in his new position.  But I can’t help but think this job is a bit of a pay-back for the strong and crucial support of Salazar during the presidential campaign.  Yes, he’s qualified, and yes, he’ll probably do a decent job, but he certainly was not the first choice of environmental groups who have all been clamoring for the President-elect to appoint a strong conservation advocate; proving once again that Obama values pragmatism over idealism, especially when it comes to the environment.

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