April 16, 2009 News » Cover Story

Salazar's smooth land-ing 

Though some perils remain, others recede for Colorado public land

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Outside, it's all smiles and broad-brimmed hats as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar poses for photos surrounded by a phalanx of Rocky Mountain National Park rangers.

The mood borders on jubilant as a group of environmentalists and politicians look on, celebrating federal legislation that will protect most of the park's backcountry from any threat of future development.

Eventually, the crowd moves to a nearby building in Estes Park for a reception, and Salazar breaks away for a few minutes to speak to the Independent. Sitting by a sunny window to thaw out on the chilly April afternoon, the former U.S. senator seems happy and relaxed to be back in his native Colorado facing a friendly crowd.

The day's business, announcing federal legislation that creates more than 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states, including 250,000 acres in Rocky Mountain National Park, serves as an early victory lap for Salazar.

But greater challenges await as Salazar tries to fix a massive bureaucracy that oversees the bulk of the country's federal lands — and which went haywire during the Bush administration.

Salazar offers goals, though few specifics, about how he will cope with what could be the biggest threat, the huge increase in oil and gas drilling leases issued in recent years.

"We're going to have to find a balance to protect the environment," Salazar says. "There will be places we will not be drilling."

Some of those places, notably, are in Utah. Soon after he was confirmed Jan. 20 as Interior secretary, Salazar canceled dozens of last-minute leases from the Bush administration that would have treated national park visitors in Utah to the scenic splendors of drilling rigs.

click to enlarge Salazar helps unveil the final wilderness area plans. - ANTHONY LANE
  • Anthony Lane
  • Salazar helps unveil the final wilderness area plans.

The move won praise from environmentalists and irked energy companies and their supporters. The Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, an industry trade group, criticized Salazar, writing that the decision "runs contrary to President Obama's energy goals and will have a chilling effect on Utah's economy."

Salazar also announced plans to revise proposed oil-shale research and development leases, a move that slows down a rush of possible speculation in Colorado and other states. That drew harsh words from U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, who's positioned himself as a champion of the industry.

"The loss of jobs, revenues and energy caused by the actions of the Interior secretary is dramatic and serious," Lamborn said in a Feb. 25 news release.

But the future of traditional oil and gas leases already granted in Colorado is still up in the air.

The Roan Plateau, a plot of Western Slope wildland near Rifle, has been the subject of bitter fighting in recent years, uniting an unusual group of hunters, fishermen and tree-huggers to oppose drilling plans.

Roan Plateau leases went up for auction in August, prompting a lawsuit from the Wilderness Society and other environmental groups.

Salazar has not moved to cancel those leases, disappointing some environmentalists.

In Estes Park, Salazar says little about the plateau's fate, explaining only that the ongoing litigation could be nearing a resolution.

Steve Smith, assistant regional director for the Wilderness Society, is hopeful that any resolution of the Roan lawsuit could lead to additional safeguards if drilling is allowed, or even withdrawal of the leases.

click to enlarge Ken Salazar is tackling many land-use issues. - ANTHONY LANE
  • Anthony Lane
  • Ken Salazar is tackling many land-use issues.

In general, he says, Salazar has brought a renewed thoughtfulness to the leasing process and administration of public lands.

"This is kind of a course correction," Smith says of Salazar's operating style.

The economic slowdown and a drop in natural gas prices make it difficult to see how far off-course public land administration strayed in the last eight years. Many leases now exist just on paper — if the market for gas recovers and the energy companies swing back into action, the damage could still be done.

But Smith seems hopeful about the Roan outcome, in part because of recent progress protecting other land including Rocky Mountain National Park's backcountry.

That land was slated for wilderness designation back in 1974 when President Richard Nixon was in office. The idea has been resurrected repeatedly since then, including in 1994 when Smith worked on wilderness legislation as a staff member for former U.S. Rep. David Skaggs.

Though the land did not face immediate threats, the wilderness designation is not an academic matter. Three new roads for the park have been proposed since 1974, Smith says. Now, legislation signed by President Barack Obama will keep it wild and stop any additional roads.

"It is really nice to get it sewn up," he says.

Other problems facing Salazar don't offer as tidy a fix. Last year, a scandal erupted out of the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service office in Lakewood, with allegations that employees were getting wild and crazy with oil and gas company executives.

"I think the scandal is about sex and drugs," Salazar says. "The message we have sent is that kind of behavior has no place."

Still, changing the office's culture and erasing the public's memory of the scandal could take months, if not years.

For the longer term, Salazar has plugged solar- and wind-power projects as ways to reduce demand for oil and gas.

Though getting massive alternative energy projects up and running will be a struggle, Salazar seems upbeat about their prospects as he makes predictions that should please and disappoint the differing environmental and oil-gas crowds.

"You will see huge leaps forward with wind and solar," Salazar says, "but oil and gas will continue to be part of the equation."


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