Salazar at Interior: For Greens, Not a Dream Choice

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Jeff Haynes / Reuters

Interior Secretary-designate, Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo.

Environmentalists have so far been ecstatic over President-elect Barack Obama's Cabinet picks, with some even calling it the green dream team. And when Obama introduced Democratic Senator Ken Salazar as his new Secretary of the Interior at a news conference in Chicago Wednesday morning, he was likely hoping for the same worshipful reaction. "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," said Obama. "That is the kind of leadership embodied by Ken Salazar."

But not all greens are so sure about the Colorado Senator, and Salazar's nomination could represent Obama's first conflict with the environmental community. Although mainstream green groups like Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) were quick to praise Salazar — Dan Grossman, head of EDF's Rocky Mountain office, calls Salazar a "rare talent" — other environmentalists were far less impressed. "His environmental record is pretty mixed," says Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Ariz. "He's far from the most antienvironmental guy out there, but he's no environmental hero." (See members of Obama's White House.)

The chief complaints about Salazar — a rancher who worked as Colorado's attorney general before his election to the Senate in 2004 — center on his ties to the ranching and mining industries and some of his votes as a Senator. As attorney general, he threatened to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — which he would lead as Interior Secretary — over the listing of the black-tailed prairie dog as endangered. (In Colorado, the animal is still classified as a "pest" to ranchers.)

A relatively conservative Democrat, typical of the new centrist Western wing of the party, Salazar voted in favor of President George W. Bush's Interior Secretary nominee Gale Norton, who has been roundly criticized for her mismanagement of the beleaguered department. He also supported his friend Alberto Gonzales for U.S. Attorney General, even escorting Gonzales into the U.S. Senate on the first day of his nomination hearings. Although Salazar has since said that he was wrong to support Gonzales, who eventually stepped down after being accused of politicizing the Justice Department, his critics view the votes as evidence that the Coloradoan lacks judgment. "This is the guy who will be in charge of picking the head of the Fish and Wildlife Department and countless other positions," says Suckling. "If you look at his record for sussing out personal character, it's bad."

But other environmentalists argue that Salazar's centrism will serve him well at Interior, where he'll need to balance protection of the land and species with legitimate development of the country's natural resources. They point to his past practice in Colorado as a water-rights lawyer as evidence that he understands one of the most important environmental issues facing the U.S., as well as to his opposition in the Senate to the destructive practice of oil shale exploration in the Rocky Mountains. Industry representatives from mining and energy reacted positively to Salazar's appointment, seeing him as a pragmatist.

"He isn't a born environmentalist, but he is a born steward of natural resources," says EDF's Grossman, who pointed to Salazar's work to broker a compromise on offshore oil drilling. Obama noted that Salazar's family has farmed and ranched on the same land in Colorado for five generations, giving him firsthand knowledge of the West that other candidates to lead Interior — like the respected Representative Jay Inslee of Seattle — might lack. "You need someone who has the land in their soul," says Sharon Buccino, the director of NRDC's land program. "Salazar does."

Whether he's loved by the environmental community or not, what's certain is that Salazar has an enormously difficult job in front of him. The Interior Department — historically one of the more scandal-ridden of the federal government — is a disaster. The Bush Administration stuffed the department with former industry lobbyists who kowtowed to miners and loggers, eviscerated environmental protections like the Endangered Species Act and actively ignored recommendations by the department's scientists. Worse, the Mineral Management Service (MMS) — a branch of Interior that collects royalties from energy industry work on federal lands — was hit this year with a massive scandal. MMS employees received thousands of dollars of gifts from the energy companies they were supposed to be policing; several officials were accused of using drugs at industry functions and even sleeping with oil and gas company representatives.

"The Interior Department has had a rape and pillage attitude over the past eight years," says Buccino. "Salazar will bring a different approach." Even critics of the new Secretary can agree on one thing about the cowboy-hat-wearing nominee: he can't possibly be worse.

See members of Obama's White House.

See TIME's special report on the environment.