Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has quickly put his stamp on policy at the agency that oversees the largest hunk of land in the United States.
The Department of the Interior manages hundreds of millions of acres of public lands collectively owned by you, me and every other American. These include all of our national parks and national wildlife refuges, and the vast desert landscapes run by the Bureau of Land Management.
Salazar's short tenure is already a breath of fresh air blowing through the halls of Washington. For anyone who might claim that elections don't matter, they clearly are not paying attention to conservation.
Salazar brings a cautious, moderate style honed by his cultural heritage dating back generations in southern Colorado combined with his pragmatic view of the needed balance between natural resource conservation and resource exploitation. Salazar already has brought sighs of relief to conservationists, hunters, water resource managers and many others concerned by the dogmatic full-speed-ahead approach of the Bush administration. But at the same time, Salazar has been anything but a puppet of conservation groups, as evidenced by his recent decision to continue the Bush administration's process to take wolves off the endangered species list in Montana and Idaho.
What has Salazar done of relevance to those of us who call the Southwest home?
One of his first actions was pulling the plug on the controversial mineral auction of thousands of acres of public lands across Utah in December 2008. The Bush administration tried to sell off gas and oil leases literally on the doorstep of some of our grandest national parks. The sale got great media play when a University of Utah student spontaneously bid for a number of parcels and sabotaged the sale. Salazar decided to simply wipe the slate clean, canceled the entire lease sale, and will ask BLM to go back and more carefully scrutinize lands before offering them up to oil companies.
The oil industry is trying to strike back, but Salazar's moderate style makes him tough to pigeonhole. While canceling the Utah lease sale, he has at the same time moved forward with more than 1 million acres of other gas and oil leases on less sensitive western lands.
Another of Salazar's key interests has been prospective oil shale development. Northwest Colorado harbors geologic formations with partially formed hydrocarbons. Some oil companies, like Shell, hope to inject massive amounts of heat and electricity underground to literally try to finish "cooking" the prototype hydrocarbons, and make useable oil out of it. No one has yet cracked that technological nut, and current approaches necessitate using vast quantities of water, enough to consume all of the unallocated portion of the Colorado River. Salazar wisely has introduced some common sense into the pell-mell development schemes of the Bush administration, and has pulled back from giving away leases at bargain basement rates to oil companies.
Here's a toast to Secretary Salazar's first 100 days. Let's hope he makes good on the remainder of his tenure.
Mark Pearson is director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.