WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was defiant as an aide slipped him a note during his testimony before the House interior appropriations subcommittee. Led by two Republican senators upset by the Obama administration's decision to cancel oil and gas leases near two national parks in southern Utah's Red Rock Canyon region, the Senate had just blocked the White House nominee for the No. 2 slot at the Interior Department.
Dismissing the vote as "bitter obstructionism," Salazar said he wasn't about to second-guess his decision on the Utah leases. "I have no regrets," he told the subcommittee last week.
In the nearly four months since taking office, the Obama administration has moved quickly, relentlessly and without apology to roll back the natural resource and public lands policies of its predecessor. Though they have yet to lay out their own vision in detail, Salazar and other administration officials have left no doubt that they consider the Bush approach misguided and unfairly weighted toward timber, mining, oil and other interests.
"We have had some rough years," Forest Service chief Gail Kimbell, a holdover from the Bush administration and a "green suiter" who came up through the ranks of her agency, said in earlier testimony before the interior appropriations subcommittee.
During the past 120 days, the Obama administration has put on hold or reversed Bush administration plans for oil and gas drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf and for the northern spotted owl, endangered Pacific salmon and mountaintop mining in the Appalachians. It's signed a bill protecting 2 million acres of wilderness, moved to bolster the budgets of the major federal lands agencies, appointed scientists to top policy posts and provided another $55 million to speed the largest dam removal in U.S. history on Washington state's Elwha River.
The White House also shut down an end run around the Endangered Species Act that would have allowed the Forest Service to sell timber, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build levees and dredge rivers, and other federal agencies to take action without consulting those responsible for administering the act.
"There has been a remarkable shift in priorities by this administration," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., the chairman of the House interior appropriations subcommittee.
There also have been controversies for environmentalists.
The administration's plan to eliminate $80 million in funding for mostly small river and stream projects to restore salmon habitat stunned Dicks and others West Coast lawmakers. He and some other lawmakers also were uneasy over the administration's plan to reopen the Statute of Liberty despite safety and security concerns.
Environmentalists were unhappy with the decision to remove federal protections for wolves in the northern Rockies and to continue the Bush administration policy of barring the consideration of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change while developing a plan to protect endangered polar bears. The new administration also has yet to wade into the dispute over the fate of 60 million acres of federal lands that are de facto wilderness and free of roads.
"It's not that everything is perfect, but when you step back it's a pretty impressive start," said Bill Arthur, a deputy national field director for the Sierra Club who's based in Seattle.
Some in industry are taking a wait-and-see attitude. Others are already critical.
Given that the administration has extended the public comment period on offshore drilling for another six months, oil and gas industry officials are skeptical.
"They have said oil and gas is important in the future, but all the decisions have been delay, delay, delay," said Denise McCourt, the industry relations director for the American Petroleum Institute. "Because of their strong focus on alternative fuel, there is a sense of no more oil and gas. We are in a wait and see."
The number of catastrophic fires is growing and the fire season is now year-round, in part because of global warming. Nearly 50 percent of the Forest Service's budget has been spent on fighting fires, and the agency's accounts for such things as reforestation have been raided to help pay for it. The administration's recent budget plan would increase funding to fight fires by more than $400 million, to $1.4 billion. However, Dicks said funding remained flat for reducing hazardous fuels on federal lands and other so-called healthy forest initiatives.
Even so, Tom Partin of the American Forest Resource Council in Portland, Ore., said it remained to be seen where the administration would come down when it came to managing the forests.
"I think they understand there is a problem in the forests and they need to do something soon," Partin said. "We are cautiously optimistic."
One way to track what the administration's plans are is by following the money for such agencies as the Forest Service, the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. During the Bush administration, Dicks said, Forest Service funding was down 35 percent, EPA funding down 29 percent and Interior Department funding down 18 percent.
Under the budget Obama recently sent to Congress, Dicks said, funding for the Forest Service is up 3 percent, Interior is up 9 percent and the EPA is up 29 percent.
"We are still not back to where we should be had we received appropriate support from the previous administration," Dicks said. "Although there are some holes, the new budget requests are better than what we have been accustomed to."
Some environmentalists greeted Salazar's appointment as interior secretary with concern. Though he was from a Western state, Colorado, they considered him too close to business interests, and viewed his support for protecting public lands as suspect.
"The jury is still out on Salazar," said Bob Irvin, the senior vice president for conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife. "We are certainly encouraged by some of the decisions, but let's see how they are doing in six months."
Environmentalists have praised other appointments as the administration seeks to restore science as a primary factor in making decisions on natural resources and public lands. The new head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees federal ocean and fisheries policies and will play a crucial role in developing climate change policies, is Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist and a professor at Oregon State University.
"The most fundamental thing he (Obama) has done is bring science out of the closet, or better yet out of jail and taken off the handcuffs," said Arthur, of the Sierra Club. "This guy has moved further and faster than any president I have seen."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2009