This week's announcement by President-elect Barack Obama of his choices for the leaders of the departments of Agriculture and Interior are getting mixed reviews from conservationists, with some more left-leaning groups already denouncing both picks.
In a Wednesday press conference when he revealed his choices, Obama named former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as secretary of Agriculture and Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., as secretary of the Interior. He said both men will be key members of his energy and environment team.
"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 in a prepared statement. "That is the kind of leadership embodied by Ken Salazar and Tom Vilsack."
Though both picks are of great interest in the West, it's the Salazar choice that's aroused the most debate among western political leaders and conservationists. That's in large part because the department manages about 500 million acres of surface land, or about one-fifth the land in the United States, with most of that in the West and Alaska. The agency is also responsible for managing millions of acres of subsurface mineral rights, meaning whoever leads the Interior has a lot to say about oil and gas drilling.
About 256 million acres of the Interior's domain is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 96.2 million acres by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and 84.6 million acres by the National Park Service. In Idaho, the BLM manages nearly 12 million acres, or nearly a quarter of the state's 53.5 million acres.
The choice of Salazar seems partly calculated to appeal to conservative elected officials from the West. Some conservationists note that past Agriculture and Interior picks by other Democratic Presidents have backfired when those leaders have sought to make sweeping reforms on issues like mining and grazing.
A prime example of that was Clinton's choice to lead the Department of Interior in 1992, former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt. Babbitt angered many Western conservatives when he tried to overhaul mining and grazing rules.
Many of those officials didn't take too kindly to his governing style, said Rick Johnson, executive director of the Boise-based Idaho Conservation League, which is known for its more collaborative approach on environmental issues and its willingness to work with Republican politicians. Johnson said the perceived lack of consensus-building by Babbitt and the Clinton administration on environmental and natural resource issues backfired.
"He got pounded," he said. "It was very difficult for the Clinton administration to recover in the West."
Johnson did express some measure of disappointment that his first choice for Interior—actually the first choice for many environmentalists across the country—wasn't picked. That was Arizona Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva, a well-known proponent for protecting the West's vast public lands.
Johnson said most environmentalists consider staffing at Interior to be an environmental issue. However, he said that's not entirely correct for the massive agency, which employs about 73,000 people.
"There's a lot to juggle there," he said.
Johnson said some conservationists who have worked closely with Salazar are pleased with his appointment. He's introduced legislation supported by conservationists, including a bill that would designate nearly 250,000 acres of Rocky Mountain National Park as wilderness.
"Some of my colleagues in Colorado like him a lot," Johnson said.
Like other conservationists, Johnson will have a keen eye on appointments to lead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the BLM and the Forest Service.
As for the Vilsack pick, Johnson is less enthusiastic. He described Vilsack, who will lead the agency that includes the Forest Service under its umbrella, as more of an "old-style agriculture secretary."
"I'm more disappointed there," he said.
Taking a much different approach to Salazar's appointment is Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project, an outspoken voice on Western grazing issues led by Hailey resident Jon Marvel. Together with Wild Earth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity, Marvel is seeking to stop the nomination.
They say whoever leads the agency will need to address a significant backlog of federal Endangered Species Act listings. The current Interior Secretary, former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, oversaw a two-year hiatus between 2006 to 2008 when no species were listed.
The groups say they are not confident that Salazar possesses the will for "this important work."
A lack of ESA enforcement by the two Interior secretaries to serve under Bush "require an effective and enthusiastic incoming Interior secretary who places science above politics and prioritizes federal environmental protections above accommodations for ecologically harmful industries," Marvel and the other groups state in a letter. "Salazar does not meet either test."