- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2009

DENVER | Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is a tough guy to categorize.

On the one hand, he’s the Westerner in the cowboy hat who grew up on a ranch and understands the challenges facing the rural economy. On the other, he’s the Democrat with the 85 percent approval rating from the League of Conservation Voters who has vowed to take a hard look at the Bush administration’s environmental policies on public lands.

Those trying to figure out which Ken Salazar will prevail received an early data point last week. In his first major decision as interior secretary, he canceled oil and gas leases on about 130,000 acres in Utah, saying that the sales were the result of “midnight actions” by the previous administration.

“In its last weeks in office, the Bush administration rushed ahead to sell oil and gas leases at the doorstep of some of our nation’s most treasured landscapes in Utah,” said Mr. Salazar Wednesday. “We need to responsibly develop our oil and gas supplies to help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but we must do so in a thoughtful and balanced way that allows us to protect our signature landscapes and cultural resources.”

Environmentalist groups, which were bitterly divided in their reaction to Mr. Salazar’s nomination, applauded the move, declaring their long national nightmare under the Bush White House finally over.

Mr. Salazar even got a thumbs-up from actor Robert Redford, perhaps the nation’s best-known environmentalist.

“I see this announcement as a sign that after eight long years of rapacious greed and backdoor dealings, our government is returning a sense of balance to the way it manages our lands,” said Mr. Redford, a trustee with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Meanwhile, advocates of energy independence and public-land use, many of whom had applauded Mr. Salazar’s ascension to the Interior Department post, were stunned by what they saw as a decision to pull back from the Obama administration’s commitment to energy independence.

“We’re very disappointed with this decision. This project was years in the making, and the cancellation runs counter to the notion of economic stimulus,” said Greg Schnacke, president of Americans for American Energy in Colorado. “This is going to hurt Utah and kill jobs there.”

Contrary to Mr. Salazar’s depiction of the project as a last-minute boondoggle, oil-and-gas advocates said the lease auction was the result of a seven-year process that included public comment and environmental research.

Mr. Salazar left open the possibility that some of the 77 leases, valued at $6 million, could still go into development after an Interior Department review.

The decision doesn’t mean that Mr. Salazar is in the pocket of the green movement, or that the Interior Department plans on taking a hard left on environmental issues. But it certainly raises those questions, Mr. Schnacke said.

“This particular decision is a big one because it’s really the first decision by this administration,” he said. “All the environmental extremists are cheering, so there’s a lot of concern. You can start to question whether this is the start of a policy shift for this administration away from energy independence.”

Two months ago, the only criticism of Mr. Salazar was coming from environmental groups. A coalition of 50 wildlife organizations and biologists wrote letters to President Obama in December asking him to select someone other than the junior senator from Colorado.

When Mr. Salazar was named to the post last month, environmental reaction was mixed, with organizations like the Audubon Society praising the appointment and others predicting four more years of the same.

“The Department of the Interior desperately needs a strong, forward-looking, reform-minded secretary,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Unfortunately Ken Salazar is not that man.”

Jon Marvel, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, called Mr. Salazar’s appointment “a travesty” adding that he would “completely undermine Obama’s message of change.”

Critics cited Mr. Salazar’s support for the nomination of former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, a Bush appointee; his statements in favor of factoring in the economic impact of endangered-species decisions; and his support for easing restrictions on offshore oil drilling.

On the other hand, support for Mr. Salazar from the other side of the aisle was nearly unanimous. He won praise from former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, as well as land-rights and energy organizations, who lauded him for his knowledge of rural issues.

A common theme for anyone who knows Mr. Salazar is his reasonable, fair approach to controversial issues. He’s been described as having a “first-class temperament,” a comment first applied to President Franklin Roosevelt and more recently to Mr. Obama.

“Ken has a great penchant and ability for bringing folks together,” said Kent Holsinger, a natural-resources attorney in Denver who has worked with the secretary on water issues.

His backers also point out that Mr. Salazar tends to shine in executive roles, first as director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, then as the state’s attorney general.

His only legislative experience came during his four years as a senator. In that capacity, he drew better marks from groups like Environment America, which gave him a 90 percent ranking in 2008, than groups like the American Land Rights Association, which gave him a 40 percent in 2007.

Chuck Cushman, who heads the ALRA, said he worries that Mr. Salazar could follow in the footsteps of Bruce Babbitt, the interior secretary under President Clinton. Like Mr. Salazar, Mr. Babbitt was a rancher from a Western state, but his affiliation was clearly with the environmental community.

“He was supposed to be an Arizona rancher, but he was clearly the enemy of ranchers, and did everything he could to strangle ranchers,” Mr. Cushman said. “If Ken Salazar is Bruce Babbitt in a cowboy hat, then we’ve got a problem.”

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