Salazar pick indicates big change at Interior Department

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 17, 2008 

WASHINGTON -- President-elect Barack Obama's selection of Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado as his nominee for interior secretary suggested a 180-degree turn from the way the Interior Department operated under the Bush administration.

"It’s time for a new kind of leadership in Washington that's committed to using our lands in a responsible way to benefit all our families," Obama said during his announcement. "That means ensuring that even as we are promoting development where it makes sense, we are also fulfilling our obligation to protect our national treasures."

The Salazar selection is likely to have a big impact in states such as Alaska and Idaho, where federal agencies manage large amounts of land.

In Alaska, where 60 percent of the land is under federal management, they wonder what sort of leadership he'll provide on issues of importance to Alaskans that he oversees, including endangered species guidelines, additional oil and gas development and Native issues.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin hopes to meet with Salazar once the Senate confirms him, said John Katz, who heads Gov. Sarah Palin's Washington office. They know that Salazar opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Katz said, but don't want to "make assumptions about other oil and gas issues until we have a dialogue." Palin is "anxious to have that dialogue" with the new Interior official, Katz said.

"In the Alaska world they are just an incredibly important agency," Katz said of the Interior Department. "There's no question that he will have a tremendous impact on Alaska."

Bill Myers of Idaho, the former Interior Department solicitor under Interior Secretary Gale Norton, described Salazar as a "cowboy-hat-wearing Western Democrat in the mold of Cecil Andrus," who as interior secretary in the Carter administration was responsible for the 1980 legislation that set aside 104 million acres of wilderness under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

A spokesman for Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young was less enthusiastic. Ultimately, the interior secretary's positions on issues such as opening ANWR to development are reflective of those of the administration, said Young's spokesman, Steven Hansen. And that means that they're unlikely to be able to persuade Salazar to reverse course on ANWR.

But, Hansen said, Salazar's reputation as a moderate is helpful and "the fact that he's from a somewhat Western state is good."

Like Young, Sen.-elect Mark Begich had some concerns about Salazar's opposition to drilling in ANWR -- a position at odds with the president-elect and many Democrats. But Begich, a Democrat, said he sees it as a "new opportunity to re-educate lawmakers and policy makers on the issue of ANWR."

“If Ken Salazar becomes our secretary of interior," Begich said, "I’ll make sure he is well-educated on the issues important to Alaska and invite him to our state to see first-hand the importance of ANWR and the many other non-renewable and renewable resources we have here."

Many environmentalists say they're cautiously optimistic about Salazar's appointment. Specifically, they hope that they'll have a shot in Alaska at curtailing some of the aggressive oil and gas leasing the current administration has pursued in Bristol Bay, said Deborah Williams, who worked as the special assistant to the Interior Secretary for Alaska during the Clinton administration and now runs Alaska Conservation Solutions.

"He has a strong reputation as a problem solver and as a gifted political strategist," Williams said. "I think he is going to put the Department of Interior back on the right track, and that will benefit Alaska and the nation."

Williams added that while Salazar has voted for some expanded offshore drilling, he has remained committed to keeping ANWR off limits.

"I think he'll be good on protecting the Arctic refuge," she said. "He's been good on that so here's no reason to believe he'll change."

Elise Jones, the executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, said she hates to lose Salazar as a senator from her state, but believes he has the skills to excel as an Interior secretary.

"If you look at a lot of the progress made on conservation issues the greatest progress has been made by people who have an understanding of the landscapes they want to protect and the people," said Jones, whose organization represents 95 environmental groups in the state.

"It could be that a centralist like Ken Salazar can get more done because he’s not a lightning rod and he can work with all sides," Jones said. "He’s not going to draw a backlash from traditional commodities industries."

Salazar also got high praise from his fellow Western senators, including the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada. Salazar will "restore the department’s tarnished reputation on science and ethics, and will work with tribal leaders to address the needs of Indian Country," Reid said.

"He knows the American West, he knows the importance of working across party lines to get things done, and he is committed to providing the leadership we need to meet some of our nation’s greatest challenges – including increasing our energy security and meeting the water needs of the coming century."

(Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman contributed to this report.)

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