Salazar’s most pressing test will come in energy policy. In fiscal year 2008, Colorado banked $178.4 million in oil and gas royalties on public land, a record amount and a 45 percent increase from fiscal year 2007. This revenue funds schools, roads and other state services, and since 2003, when royalties were $53.9 million, it has steadily grown. So have the number of active oil and gas wells operating in Colorado, which increased from roughly 25,000 in 2003 to 37,270 as of this January, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Oil and gas production is a critical industry to Colorado, specifically in Weld and Garfield counties, where the majority of production takes place.
This growth, which was championed by Bush Administration officials, alarmed Colorado hunters, environmentalists and conservationists, who saw some of their favorite recreation spots go on the auction block, including Northwestern Colorado’s Vermillion Basin, western Colorado’s Roan Plateau, and the state’s southwestern Baca National Wildlife Refuge near Great Sand Dunes National Park.
“It’s been a brutal eight long years,” says Suzanne Jones, regional director of the Wilderness Society’s Central Rockies office in Denver. “We worked a lot of hours to keep places from being drilled and bulldozed. We experienced a disregard for citizen comments, the governor’s wishes.”
The alliances had some successes, which included postponing drilling on the Roan Plateau and on the Baca National Wildlife Refuge abutting Great Sand Dunes National Park. Yet they face continued threats. Roughly 800 billion barrels of oil are believed to be trapped in the shale rock and sand of the Green River Formation of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. Extremely difficult to extract, this oil shale reserve has fueled controversy for two decades, as oil companies continue to try to develop cheap ways to get to the oil, while environmentalists fight the extraction efforts, arguing that releasing the oil would require excessive amounts of water, harm the environment and the air, contribute to global warming and prove unsustainable.
As a U.S. Senator, Salazar helped impose a one-year moratorium on commercial oil shale leasing in Colorado. The moratorium expired last fall. Shortly before leaving office, President Bush changed the regulations overseeing oil shale leasing and opened the door to controversial development that would require significant amounts be extracted from the already taxed Colorado River Basin.
On February 25, Salazar counter punched and scrapped the Bush changes. Specifically he rescinded a lease offer made by the Bush administration for research, development, and demonstration projects that could have led to oil shale exploration on 1.9 million acres in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. Under the Bush rules, the royalties to states would have been capped at 5 percent, which was too low, according to Salazar.
“If oil shale technology proves to be viable on a commercial scale, taxpayers should get a fair rate of return,” says Salazar.
Salazar plans to keep oil shale development on the table, but his late February move allows for more environmental analysis and more public scrutiny. The Interior Department will accept public comment on oil shale development until late May and will then offer a second round of research leases “based on sound policy and public input,” Salazar says.
Oil and gas industry advocates are watching Salazar closely, and some expressed dismay in early February when the Interior Secretary cancelled those 77 BLM lease parcels in Utah. But, on the whole, Colorado oil and gas industry advocates so far have expressed support. John Swartout, senior vice president for policy and government affairs for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association says Salazar’s appointment is “great for Colorado.”
For his part, Salazar hopes to change the conversation about energy to focus on renewables. Talking to us, he spoke broadly about expanding the agency’s “energy portfolio,” slowing climate change and protecting public lands. He said he spent his four years in the senate “working very hard to move us forward to a new area of energy,” and promised to use his position as Interior Secretary to “be a strong contributing force for working on all aspects of energy…. My job for President Obama is to work on all aspects of energy, and that’s not just limited to public lands.”
Salazar’s recreation policy will differ even more from the Bush Administration’s than his energy policy. Take the Vermillion Basin. Tucked into the sandy redrock canyon country in northwestern Colorado, it’s a labyrinth of limestone ridges, rate petroglyphs and few roads. It’s also one of 62 parcels included in an ambitious wilderness proposal for 1.6 million acres of BLM land and 6 million total acres of proposed wilderness in Colorado’s national forests. That proposal should get on a fast track a pro-wilderness Democratic majority in Congress and Salazar at the helm of Interior.
But just as pressing as new wilderness designation is the current management of BLM lands, which fall under Byzantine resource management plans that designate where certain activities, be they drilling or mountain biking, are allowed. These often thick and jargon-laden plans are supposed to embody a public process whereby interested parties can weigh in on the issues that matter to them. But some plans haven’t been updated for 20 years and promote activities that are outdated and don’t incorporate the needs of current users, according to Clare Bastable, conservation director for the Colorado Mountain Club (CMC).
Bastable’s group advocates for human-powered access on public lands, and she predicts that Salazar will redirect the BLM’s focus to addressing issues such as which trails should be built where or what level of use is appropriate for certain areas. Though she doesn’t anticipate significant budget increases, Bastable says she expects Salazar to “more proportionately allocate resources within the agency” from oil and gas leasing to land management and public process. “We’re in a recession,” Bastable says, “so it’s not like all of a sudden we’re going to see billions of dollars go into land management, but [the BLM] can reallocate the budgets.”
In addition to the BLM, the Department of Interior oversees the National Park Service, which manages three national parks, six historic sites and trails, four national monuments and one national recreation area in Colorado. Issues affecting those lands include whether to allow concealed weapons in the parks (a controversial proposal that the Bush administration ruled legal last year), elk population control in Rocky Mountain National Park (wolves are not going to be reintroduced any time soon), and encouraging more minorities and urban dwellers to visit parks. In addition, the Park Service plays an important international diplomatic role.
“The national parks are often the poster agency of the Department of Interior,” says Joan Anzelmo, superintendent of Colorado National Monument. “The park system is the keeper of the United States Heritage—from the statue of liberty to Yellowstone. Secretary Salazar’s law background and his knowledge and depth of wildlife and land management bode well for the agency.”
As a senator, Salazar sat on the Committee for Energy and Natural Resources, which has oversight of the Department of Interior. He understands the bureaucracies, missions and roles of each agency, which is significant in striking a balance between different users, says Amy Roberts, government affairs director of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), which represents the interests of outdoor industry companies.
In Colorado, the outdoor recreation industry contributes more than $10 billion annually to the economy and about $500 million in state tax revenue, according to the OIA’s nonprofit Outdoor Industry Foundation. Given the economic importance of public lands, says Roberts, protecting the attractive recreational areas from oil and gas and other development is critical. In addition, she hopes the Department of Interior will increase funding to local trail programs (in the form of federal money to build paths, protect important areas and maintain trails) to encourage people to experience the outdoors close to home. “People must have places to go to recreate,” says Roberts. “And they have to first feel comfortable going to a local park near their house before they go backpacking. Our concern is that the trails remain well-maintained and this often depends on government subsidies to get the work done.”
There is evidence Salazar will do just that. As Colorado Attorney General, he was instrumental in founding Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), which uses proceeds from the state lottery for conservation projects. Since 1994, the program has awarded almost $550 million for projects throughout the state. Salazar says he wants to build a national conservation fund based on GOCO, a move Roberts says is critical for promoting a respect for the outdoors among Americans. “We feel strongly that the Bush administration leaned too heavily on oil and gas extraction and didn’t consider the benefit cost of pristine land,” says Roberts. “We believe Salazar will be different.”
Salazar’s coming changes in policy should also help the endangered species that live on public lands. These species fall under the purview of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and under the Bush Administration, efforts to address their status were subject to “inappropriate political involvement at the lowest levels of the administration,” says Stephen Guertin, regional director for the Mountain-Prairie Division of the USFWS. An internal USFWS review found about eight wildlife conservation proposals that had been meddled with by higher ups in the agency, Guertin told Elevation Outdoors. Under Salazar, the agency’s been redirected to redo the analysis and incorporate scientific findings. “The secretary has come in and insisted that the integrity of the science is imperative,” Guertin says. “There is no parachuting in and running roughshod on the process.”
Now, reviews for endangered species proposals will be based on “science, science and science,” says Guertin. “We’ll send them up the line and let the Fish and Wildlife Service evaluate them with the strongest, unassailable recommendations from career employees,” he says. “That is going to be a big difference [from the Bush Administration].”
The Endangered Species Act is among the most powerful environmental laws on the books. Once a species is listed under the act, the government has broad authority to restrict or prevent various activities in that species’ habitat until it has recovered. Consequently, environmentalists have often relied on its statutes to prevent grazing, energy development, motorized recreation, logging, mining and more. And traditionally, representatives of any industry whose activities could be curtailed by the act have opposed it.
Under Bush, those groups found an ally, says law professor Wilkinson. Historically, the Endangered Species Act gives the Fish and Wildlife Service the authority to stop projects on all public lands if they harm an endangered species. The Bush Administration changed the rules to allow each agency (for instance, the U.S. Forest Service or the BLM) to make the determination about the potential threat of a project on an endangered or threatened species. That rule change has been challenged by environmental groups and is currently in court.
In addition to reevaluating decisions made under the Endangered Species Act, Guertin’s office has been charged to “put Americans back to work.” Specifically, the recently passed Stimulus Bill includes millions of dollars for conservation work, upgrading buildings to be more energy efficient and developing a strategic plan for addressing climate change.
“While we can’t insulate species from climate effects on their habitats, we can look to manage those habitats in ways that provide the species with a fighting chance by boosting their resiliency and ability to adapt to change,” says Matt Kales, Guertin’s spokesman.
In Colorado, that means working with scientists to identify areas most susceptible to climate change—generally high-alpine regions, according to a recent report from the U.S. Geological Service—and develop interagency strategies to prevent adding stress to those vulnerable species and to protect existing habitat.
A Guy Who Gets It
Salazar must live up to lofty expectations, but he insists change is critical not just for Colorado, but also for the entire country. Still, he credits his upbringing and experiences in preparing him for the challenging post he’s acquired. “I am blessed to be from Colorado,” he says. “It is one of the most beautiful places in the entire nation, in the entire world. I wouldn’t be the Secretary of Interior if it wasn’t for the people of this great state.”
Jones of the Wilderness Society predicts there will be conflict over some of Salazar’s decisions. But she trusts he’ll be fair as he moves forward. “Secretary Salazar is a guy who gets the land,” says Jones. “He comes from a family that has long-standing ties to a place. And that is very important when you try to resolve land use issues. I don’t expect we’ll always agree with him. Let’s be clear. He is a centrist. But I think he will be fair.” •
A freelance writer based in Boulder, Rachel Odell Walker has written for publications ranging from The New York Times to Skiing.