WASHINGTON — Here's the question: What does a community organizer from Chicago who spent four years in the Senate before being elected president know about spotted owls, endangered salmon, mountain bark beetles, Western water rights, old-growth forests and the maintenance backlog in the national parks?
The answer: Probably not much.
President-elect Barack Obama has offered only scattered clues as to where he stands on the most pressing public lands and endangered species issues.
In reading the tea leaves, however, environmental groups are optimistic, timber industry and land-rights groups are wary and an influential lawmaker excited about having an ally in the White House.
"This guy is a quick study and I'm sure he will find competent people," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., who as chairman of the House Appropriations interior subcommittee oversees nearly $28 billion in annual funding for the Interior Department, the U.S. Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. "We will be able to work with him. Anything will be better than (President) Bush."
When it comes to the environment, Obama has focused his attention almost exclusively on global warming and clean energy. There are few references on his campaign Web site to on-the-ground issues, especially those specific to the West.
Obama received an 86 out of a possible 100 in the environmental scorecard for members of Congress published by the League of Conservation Voters. He was also a co-sponsor of a bill that would have protected about 58 million acres of federal lands. The Bush administration had sought to open up those roadless lands to development.
Asked about public lands and endangered species issues, Tommy Vietor, an Obama transition spokesman, said, "President-elect Obama believes there is only one president at a time, and thus isn't commenting on many of these issues at this time."
Even so, some hints about where Obama is coming from can be gleaned from those reviewing natural resource and environmental issues during the transition.
Dan Hayes, who is leading the effort at the departments of Interior and Energy, is a former deputy interior secretary in the Clinton administration who has a background in water and greenhouse gas issues. John Leshy is a former Interior Department solicitor who has ties to one of the most ardent environmentalists on Capitol Hill, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.
"I don't think Barack Obama has done a lot of thinking about endangered species and forest issues," said Bill Arthur, a deputy national field director for the Sierra Club based in Seattle. "That's not his job. What is important is who he appoints around him."
Arthur said there already have been encouraging signs from members of the transition team who have indicated an Obama administration would reverse Bush administration initiatives and bar mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia and block oil and gas leasing in southern Utah's Red Rock area.
Another Bush initiative that almost certainly will face scrutiny is a rule that would allow individual federal agencies to decide whether their actions violated the Endangered Species Act, rather than consulting with the Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the act.
The new administration also faces more fundamental issues. The budgets of such agencies as the U.S. Forest Service have been sharply trimmed in recent years. The Forest Service budget has been sliced by a third, while at the same time more than half its budget is now spent in the fight against catastrophic wildfires.
During the campaign, Obama indicated his administration would "aggressively pursue" a fire prevention, mitigation and land and forest management plan to reduce fire risks.
The Forest Service manages almost 200 million acres across the country, including the Midewin Tall Grass Prairie, near Chicago. While Obama has never officially visited Midewin, Forest Service officials say he and his staff have been supportive.
"It's a very anxious time," Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell said in an interview. "But I think the Forest Service is well prepared to take on the issues the Obama campaign has been discussing."
Kimbell acknowledged that budget issues, particularly the firefighting costs, have taken a toll. But she said the Forest Service is well aware that climate change has created an extended drought that has stressed trees and left them susceptible to such things as the mountain bark beetle. That has led to a fire season that lasts from January to November.
Dead and dying trees need to be removed and the forests thinned, even if that means felling some of the older trees, she said.
"Climate change has hit us with the increased severity of wildfire and the cost of fighting them," Kimbell said.
Environmentalists are hopeful the new administration will reverse what they see as eight years of setback after setback.
"I am 54 years old and I have actively worked on environmental issues for 25 years," Arthur said. "I'm not naive or myopic. There will always be some cold showers when it comes to these issues. But I see an administration coming in that believes change is not just needed, it is vital."
Lands-rights groups say they'll be watching the new administration closely.
"So far he has picked Clinton administration people for his transition team and I don't think that bodes well for us," said Chuck Cushman, who heads the American Land Rights Association based in Battleground, Wash. "We could have our work cut out for us."
The timber industry also is uncertain how it will fare under the Obama administration. However, Tom Partin, who heads the American Forest Resource Council in Portland, Ore., said that the industry needs to work with Obama, especially on forest health issues.
"We're keeping our powder dry," he said. "We can't write this administration off. We have to be players with them."
As the Montana primary approached in May, Obama, in perhaps his most succinct statement on public lands issues, answered questions from the Flathead Beacon newspaper in Kalispell.
He said he believed that sustainability — using resources in a way that provides for the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs — was the most important factor in managing federal lands.
"If we're going to have timber industries operating on public lands, then we should make sure that old-growth forests aren't destroyed but it's that second-growth" that harvested, he said.
Obama also told the newspaper that it was critical to designate additional wilderness areas for permanent protection, but that a balance needed to be struck by competing interests on federal lands. He also said his administration would "listen rather than dictate" in working with state and local officials.
"What I want is to be able to pass onto our children and grandchildren the same extraordinary gift that we received from our parents and grandparents," Obama said.
INTERIOR SECRETARY CANDIDATES
Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.
Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.
Former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles
Former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer
Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal
Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
John Leshy, former Interior Department solicitor
Sally Jewell, CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc.
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2008