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.
I wrote about the polar bear debate here, here and here, and the short version is that an exhausted Bush team finally gave up and yielded to very speculative scientific models and declared the polar bear "threatened" in the spring. Almost immediately the consequences of the listing became evident with demands for sharply curtailed oil and gas exploration in Alaska and, much more ominous, assertions that land use and industrial projects in the lower 48 would also be faced with new regulations because their emissions would accelerate global warming which would in turn accelerate ice destruction which would further imperil the polar bear's continued survival.
Stung by criticism of Department of the Interior's collapse in the face of highly debatable "science" about the polar bear's prospects and its general failure to effect any systemic reform of the ESA mess, outgoing Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne rushed through new regulations that revised many aspects of the species' regulatory regime and which made permanent a "special rule" on polar bears designed to limit the economic impact of the ill-considered listing. A press release announced that the special rule "ensures that the ESA is not used inappropriately to regulate greenhouse gas emissions."
On the same day that the new rules and the special rule were issued, environmentalists sued in the federal court in the Northern District of California to overturn the rules, thus assuring that the new Secretary of the Interior will face an immediate decision on whether to withdraw the rules or defend them through to the United States Supreme Court if necessary.
If Secretary Salazar defends the new rules and especially the common sense position that global warming ought not to be regulated via the backdoor of the ESA, he will win for himself and the Obama Administration huge kudos from the business community and from defenders of property rights, but deeply anger environmental activists, many of whom worked long and hard to elect the new president.
If on the other hand he moves to gut the common-sense improvements issued by the departing Kempthorne, the new secretary will brand himself in the Babbitt mold, and greatly complicate any long term political ambitions he may hold to return to Colorado and become its governor in 2014. (The incumbent governor, Bill Ritter, is a Democrat who will fill Salazar's seat perhaps with Salazar's brother Congressman John Salazar and run for re-election as governor in 2010.)
Landowners and public interest law firms that defend property rights will should seek to intervene in the California litigation to prevent a quick settlement that revokes the new rules, but the key is the new secretary. Is he, as Barone supposes, a man of the mountain west who will travel a common sense course on species protection and related issues of stewardship? If he does, and brings with him a team of moderates committed to solutions and not shut-down of land use and destruction of private property rights, expect Salazar's star to continue to rise in Democratic circles.