Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

Greenwire: Friday, April 5, 2013

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar spent Easter Sunday watching baby calves frolic on his family’s cattle ranch in Colorado’s San Luis Valley.

Before becoming a politician and before taking Interior’s helm, Salazar was a farmer and rancher.

The fifth-generation Coloradan’s rural roots have shaped his agenda as Interior secretary and let him revel in a kind of coast-to-coast valedictory tour this week to celebrate the designations of five new national monuments.

While Salazar has overseen the protection of millions of acres of federal lands over the past four years, his signature conservation efforts as Interior’s 50th secretary have focused largely on staving off development on farms and ranchlands, including the Flint Hills of Kansas, the prairie grasslands of the Dakotas and Montana’s Crown of the Continent.


Interior Secretary Ken Salazar speaks to hundreds in Taos, N.M., on Saturday at a designation ceremony for the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. President Obama designated nine national monuments during Salazar’s term in office. Photo by Phil Taylor.

Salazar, 58, who will step down as secretary in coming weeks, said in an interview that he’s most proud of his work with private landowners who agree to permanently protect their lands from development through the use of easements.

“We have worked with the ranchers to make sure this is a way to protect the ranching heritage way of life and also enhance the conservation values of the United States,” Salazar said. “I think we have brought in that public-private cooperation in conservation at an all-time high.”

While Salazar also took significant steps to conserve public lands — notably, he spared national parks from oil and gas drilling, withdrew a million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon from new mining claims, expanded protections in the National Petroleum Reserve, and helped designate the 243,000-acre Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico — his work with landowners reflected a softer approach to conservation that engendered much less hostility from western Republicans.

In the Flint Hills, Salazar proposed conserving as much as 1.1 million acres of tallgrass prairie to keep ranchers in business while bolstering habitat for more than a hundred species of grassland birds.

Salazar, a Democrat, recalled a meeting years ago with the state’s Republican governor, its two Republican senators and about 50 to 60 ranchers.

“What I was most moved by were these fifth- or sixth-generation ranchers who were there in their 80s with their granddaughters and grandsons and saying, ‘We want the Flint Hills preserved because it’s the way we preserve the ranching way of life,'” he said.

Since 2009, Salazar has helped establish 10 new national wildlife refuges covering 4.5 million acres of private and public lands.

Douglas Brinkley, a historian at Rice University who has written extensively about conservation, said Salazar saw ranchers as some of the best conservationists because of their close attachment to, and dependence on, the land.

He also recognized that the vast majority of wildlife species, including most endangered animals, spend part of their lives on private lands.

“I don’t think there has ever been an Interior secretary who understood how conservation easements worked like Salazar,” Brinkley said. “As a Colorado rancher, he understood that it’s not just about wilderness.”

Salazar was also underappreciated for his work promoting national wildlife refuges and working with landowners to create wildlife migration corridors, Brinkley said.

Gary Burnett, executive director of the Blackfoot Challenge, a coalition of landowners along Montana’s Blackfoot River, said Salazar worked effectively to conserve private lands in the Crown of the Continent, a 10-million-acre biologically rich area of northwest Montana.

Salazar toured the area in August 2011, touting the use of nonregulatory, voluntary approaches to landscape conservation, and the economic benefits of restoring the Blackfoot. The Interior and Agriculture departments in January signed an agreement with landowners there to meet at least twice a year to discuss community-based landscape-scale conservation.

While the success of the program depends in large part on funding from Congress, Burnett said Salazar helped build landowners’ trust that federal agencies really care about their economic well-being.

“It creates fertile ground for conservation investments,” he said. “You can have all the money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, but if it’s not ready to be used, if landowners say, ‘I don’t really like this tool,’ because they probably don’t understand it and their neighbors aren’t using it, it really isn’t a very useful tool.”

Ranking with top Interior secretaries

Whit Fosburgh, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said Salazar’s work with landowners paid dividends during the 2010 BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

As millions of barrels of crude gushed from the Macondo well, Salazar worked with Ducks Unlimited and other groups and agencies to persuade rice farmers and other landowners to flood their fields to prevent migrating waterfowl from landing in the oily Gulf, Fosburgh said.

“It was a quick, very creative response,” Fosburgh said.

Later on, conservation easement with landowners in the Dakotas initiated conservation of millions of acres of the prairie pothole region, an area of critical importance to waterfowl and hunters, Fosburgh said.

“He fundamentally understood the sportsmen’s connection to the outdoors,” Fosburgh said. “He was never the preservationist in the old John Muir sense. He also really understood the importance of cooperative solutions.”

But Salazar’s roots as a rancher also helped win their support for conservation of public lands, said Mike Matz, director of the Pew Campaign for America’s Wilderness.

As a senator, Salazar curried support for his 210,000-acre Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area, which included 66,280 acres of wilderness and was passed as part of the 2009 Omnibus Public Land Management Act.

Over the past year, Salazar met with ranchers, business owners and elected officials in New Mexico to gauge local support for President Obama’s decision last month to designate the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.

“That helped immediately to disarm them when something like the omnibus act went through or Rio Grande was proclaimed,” Matz said of Salazar’s ranching identity. “There was recognition on their part that he was in it for something bigger than himself.”

The Rio Grande was the largest of nine national monuments that President Obama designated during Salazar’s term. Other Interior monuments included the San Juan Islands; historical forts in Virginia and California; and historical sites recognizing the work of Harriet Tubman, Charles Young and Cesar Chavez.

While conservationists are lobbying hard for the president to declare more landscape-scale national monuments in his second term, many appeared satisfied with the lands that were designated on Salazar’s watch.

“Given the constraints of governing with a divided Congress, to that extent, I think Salazar has done a fine job and will go down in history as one of the better Interior secretaries,” Brinkley said. “I don’t say he’s a Harold Ickes or a Stewart Udall. I don’t think he reached the Mount Rushmore of Interior secretaries. But he’s in the top rung.”

Ickes was Interior secretary under presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Truman. Udall served under presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

Salazar said he’s confident that his successor, CEO of REI Sally Jewell, will continue to explore monument designations in the absence of congressional action, though he also expressed confidence that Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) would be able to advance conservation legislation this Congress.

Money worries

While Salazar was a stalwart for conservation funding, he said he is worried about the future of programs including Interior’s Land and Water Conservation Fund, a key source of cash for land acquisitions and conservation easements.

“I’m optimistic, but I’m worried,” Salazar said. While LWCF funding has increased incrementally under the Obama administration, fiscal woes in Congress have cast doubts over its future.

Salazar said he wished Republican support for conservation funding were more robust.

“I wish there were more people who would step up to the plate in the same way that former [Republican] congressman from Ohio [Steve] LaTourette used to do,” Salazar said. “He was a champion for us on LWCF, on [North American Wetlands Conservation Act] funding and preservation and conservation funding, and unfortunately there aren’t enough.”

While Republicans in Congress have argued against conservation funding and new land designations as the nation recovers from a recession and as Congress seeks trillions of dollars in deficit reduction, Salazar urged continued support.

“I would remind people it was Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the bloodiest war in America, where over 600,000 people lost their lives in the battle among ourselves to save the Union, and it was during that time that Abraham Lincoln set aside the lands that became Yosemite National Park,” Salazar told about 100 who gathered in Anacortes, Wash., on Monday to celebrate the designation of the 1,000-acre San Juan Islands National Monument.

Amid constrained budgets, Salazar also worked to connect youth to the outdoors and promote opportunities for urban recreation, said Bill Meadows, counselor and former president of the Wilderness Society.

Programs include the National Blueways, which was announced a year ago to recognize collaborative efforts to restore and conserve watersheds, Meadows said.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to have new wilderness or any new refuge,” he said of the program, which is nonregulatory. “But it means that people are thinking about how to protect watersheds in a different way and how to think about them in a way that actually adds economic value to communities.”

Salazar’s conservation agenda often faced resistance among Republicans in Congress who questioned his blueways program as well as his December 2010 Wild Lands order, which instructed the Bureau of Land Management to identify lands with wilderness characteristics and consider managing them in their roadless state.

The policy was partially scrapped after Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) inserted language in a spending bill in spring 2011 cutting its funding.

While it is unclear who in the Obama administration agreed to cut the wild lands funding, few conservationists believe Salazar was involved.

“Whoever was at the table in that first budget debate didn’t have any idea what a wild lands policy was,” Meadows said. “Once they gave it up, it was really hard to get back.”

It was one of many conservation challenges Salazar faced from the 112th Congress, which was the first since the 1960s to not designate a single acre of new wilderness or protect any new public lands.

Energy reforms

Salazar’s first move upon entering office was to withdraw 77 oil and gas leases in Utah that he warned were too close to national parks and monuments, a move that generated intense blowback from local officials and the Utah congressional delegation.

It was the first of a handful of steps he would take to, as he argued, restore balance to an oil and gas program that had swung wildly in favor of industry.

“The Bush administration, in my view, wanted to drill everywhere without cognizance of ecological or environmental sensitivities,” Salazar said. “We said, ‘No, we’re going to continue oil and gas production, but we’re going to do it in the right places and we’re going to do it in the most responsible way we can.'”

In 2010, Salazar introduced leasing reforms that required additional public and interagency review of which lands to develop, which resulted in fewer leases but also fewer environmental protests.

TRCP’s Fosburgh said that the oil and gas leasing reforms were welcomed, but that their implementation has been spotty.

“If we’re going to criticize him and the department over the past couple of years, I’d say they get a very incomplete mark on how the leasing reforms have been implemented,” Fosburgh said, noting the frustration among some sportsmen over the agency’s delayed development of master leasing plans to provide orderly oil and gas development.

In addition to leasing reforms, Salazar also ensured that BLM showcased its recreation lands, Meadows said. The agency elevated the profile of BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System, which consists of 27 million acres of BLM-managed national monuments, conservation areas, wilderness and other protected lands.

“What is happening in that area of the BLM is just remarkable,” Meadows said. “The conservation lands are elevated to an area in BLM where they get a lot of attention. You still have some career folks at the agency who are skeptical and come at it with a different frame of mind, but the culture has certainly changed.”

In the Arctic, Salazar split the baby.

He significantly expanded protections for wildlife and subsistence hunters in the National Petroleum Reserve (NPR-A), but allowed Royal Dutch Shell PLC to pursue the first new drilling in the Arctic Ocean in the past two decades, a move that many conservationists regard as Salazar’s biggest blunder.

Salazar defended the decision to begin limited drilling.

“The policy of knowing what resources are within the sovereignty of the United States is an important one, and that includes the Arctic seas,” Salazar said, noting that oil, if it is found, would not be produced in the Arctic for at least several years. “We ought not be afraid of the information that will come from it, and the science that will come from it in the meantime.”

Salazar approved Shell to conduct preparatory drilling activities this summer but forbade the company from penetrating into oil-bearing rocks, since it had failed to acquire permits for its oil spill response vessel. The company experienced a series of accidents in 2012 that included the grounding of its drillship Kulluk off the southern coast of Alaska on New Year’s Day.

“There were obviously mistakes that Shell made,” Salazar said. “Whatever moves forward, if anything, in 2014, it will have to be done under the auspices of the lessons learned in 2012.”

Salazar’s conservation platform gained him few fans in the energy industry, which frequently complained that oil and gas production was soaring on state and private lands while staying relatively flat on federal lands and, in the case of the Gulf, was falling rapidly due to the post-spill moratorium.

Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, said Salazar was wrong to suggest that oil and gas companies had free rein under the George W. Bush administration.

“He came in and his rhetoric and his actions were driven by the attitude that oil and gas was unfettered,” she said. “But when you look at the prior eight years, more lands were put under conservation designation by BLM. Not one single new acre was open in a resource management plan.”

Salazar’s leasing reforms and longer permitting times on BLM lands have contributed to the slower production growth on federal lands, she said.

“He overreacted to the prior administration, and as a result, he didn’t achieve balance,” she said. “He swung too far to the conservation side.”

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