Obama’s Quiet “Sheriff”

Posted by on Dec 3, 2009 in Articles | No Comments

While the rest of Washington has been preoccupied with health care and tea parties and wars and Sarah Palin (not to mention wars aboutSarah Palin), Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has been quietly—and slowly—undoing some of the worst abuses of the Bush administration. My piece on Ken Salazar’s toughest dilemma is now up on the Men’s Journal site.

But first, some background:

Cheney’s “energy strategy” amounted to a a death sentence for millions of acres of habitat out West, as the government handed out drilling and mining rights to public land at a tiny fraction of its true value. Oil and (especially) natural gas companies fanned out across the landscape—led by Halliburton’s “Red Army,” of course—and pocked the earth with thousands of drilling pads and miles upon miles of new roads. From Montana down to New Mexico, the landscape and economy of the West was completely changed.

One of the last un-drilled islands of land was on a place called the Roan Plateau, a magical Colorado landscape known to hunters and fishermen but not too many others. Cheney’s office put the public land on the Roan—all 55,000 acres of it—on the fast track for energy leasing, but environmentalists fought back, made it their Alamo. And as a Senator, Ken Salazar was on their side, against drilling on the Roan. And he lost: with less than six months left in office, the Bush adminstration leased it all out.

But now that he’s Interior Secretary, things are a bit more….complicated. If he yanks the leases outright, the oil industry will flip out. Oh, wait, they already have. And he’s finally begun to shoot back…but some greeny types still weren’t all that happy with the choice of Salazar. He’s de-listed wolves from the Endangered Species Act, for one thing; and of course, he hasn’t protected the Roan. Environmentalists expected Salazar to revoke the Roan leases, as he’d pulled back other, sensitive tracts. Instead, he’s been in court, defending a drilling plan he had opposed as a Senator.

Me, I think it’s a sort of test case for the Salazar style, where he sits back and waits for things to play out his way — having done all he could, in his low-key way, to make sure the marbles all run his direction. Eventually. (For more, check out my pal Max Potter’s epic profile of “Cowboy Ken” in 5280 magazine.)

This story was great fun to report: I spent a day tramping around on the Roan with Steve Torbit and Bill Dvorak from National Wildlife Federation and Ken Neubecker of Colorado Trout Unlimited, telling hilarious bait-and-bullet stories, then the next day we did a fly-over with Bruce Gordon of EcoFlight, who’s like a Paul Newman character come to life. Then the next day we barreled down to the San Luis Valley, where Salazar grew up on a hardscrabble farm. The amazing thing, though, is the extent to which your stereotypical good ol’ boys—hunters, fishers, ranchers, cowboys—have been turned into environmentalists, thanks to the Bush administration, which let the oil industry basically wreck their lands. And that’s another story for another day…

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