OUT: Sunday Column November 09, 2008
What will election mean for the West?
From a local’s standpoint, one of the more important decisions resulting from Tuesday’s presidential election will be the person tabbed for the Secretary of the Department of Interior.
Whoever takes this post will affect nearly every facet of life in the western third of the U.S., from where you recreate on weekends to the air you breathe and the water you drink.
That person will oversee more than 507 million acres of public land, including vast reaches of rangelands, mountains and high desert, wildlife refuges and the 84.3 million acres found in all 58 national parks.
There’s also the not-so-small matter of the more than 600 dams that supply water for an estimated 31 million Westerners and irrigate millions of acres of pasture and farms.
And lest we forget, there’s all that oil and gas underlying the surface, along with abundant reserves of coal, molybdenum and other mining concerns, all under the aegis of the Interior Department.
Did we mention this position is important?
The current issue of High Country News (http://www.hcn.org) contains a report by writer Rocky Barker about his guesses as to current or possible candidates for this job. As his story was written well before the election, Barker covers some interesting ground, ranging from the chances of current Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne staying on to such long-range possibilities, depending on what party occupies the White House, as Colorado Republican Sen. Wayne Allard and Montana Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
We can, now that Barack Obama is headed to the White House, rule out Allard and other Republicans, including Kempthorne.
One drawback (there are others but one at a time) of having a Democrat for president along with a Democrat-controlled Congress is the lack of checks and balances.
You can bet there are many conservationists eager to see Kempthorne leave although, as Barker notes in his story, Kempthorne hasn’t been all bad.
The former Idaho senator and governor managed to restore some dignity to the Interior Department that was lost under the fumblings of one-time Interior head Gale Norton.
But dignity won’t save species from extinction or natural resources from plundering.
And certainly Kempthorne was no Bruce Babbit. According to a Wikipedia entry, during his six years in the Senate, Kempthorne scored zero on the League of Conservation Voters’ legislative scorecards every year except 1993, when he scored a measly 6 percent.
Kempthorne’s Senate years presaged his less-then-distinguished time heading up the Interior Department. Until his listing of the polar bear earlier this year, Wikipedia states he was the only Interior Secretary to fail to list any plant or animal on the Endangered Species List.
Kempthorne’s record is remindful of former Interior Secretary James Watt, who once uttered the unforgettable line, “If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used.”
One name missing from Barker’s list is that of Colorado’s senior Democratic senator, Ken Salazar of Alamosa.
Salazar has an excellent grasp of natural resource management, a talent he displayed during his tenure as head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
He’s also considered a moderate on many causes, which might help soften some of the more-strident liberals in Congress (see Pelosi, Nancy, D-Cal.).
Salazar fills some vital Senate committee roles, including sitting on both the Agriculture and the Energy and Natural Resources committees, so he’s already braced for handling related issues.
For his part, Salazar has given no indication he’s interested in a Cabinet positon.
That’s understandable. For one thing, his job security is better as a senator, since the Interior Secretary faces a four-year contract with no promise of renewal.
Whomever is selected, the head of the Interior Department should be someone from the West, with a Westerner’s background on water, natural resources and public-land issues.
Horace Greeley certainly got that one right.