In a recent blog post, Michael Barone observed that the policies pursued by the Department of the Interior have real world consequences that result in political shifts. Barone wondered whether President-elect Obama's selection of Colorado Senator Ken Salazar to be the new Secretary of the Interior telegraphed the new president's desire to avoid the political alienation of the west which Bill Clinton's appointee Bruce Babbitt triggered during his long tenure at Interior in the '90s.
Senator Salazar is widely viewed as a moderate, and as a genuine westerner with the westerner's belief that land use policy promoting economic growth, recreation and resource stewardship is possible. While there is a deeply entrenched and very savvy environmental movement in the mountain west and pacific northwest, the long tradition of the region is to find ways to allow development and environmental protection to coincide. That balance worked well until the '90s and the rise of an aggressive litigation strategy by environmental activists that uses provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act ("ESA") to compel species listings and "critical habitat designations" which greatly impede development and infrastructure construction. The legal clashes continued throughout the eight years of the Bush Administration, and an increasingly politicized career bureaucracy at the United States Fish & Wildlife Service teamed with environmental activists to battle Bush appointees, landowners and public interest property-rights lawyers in a series of controversies that culmininated in the great polar bear listing debate of 2007 and early 2008.