Farmer and listener, Salazar is a good choice for Interior

On Wednesday morning, President-elect Obama announced that Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar will lead the Department of Interior in the new administration.

Obama said during his announcement:

It’s time for a new kind of leadership in Washington that’s committed to using our lands in a responsible way to benefit all our families…ensuring that the policies being shaped at the Departments of Agriculture and Interior are designed to serve not big agribusiness or Washington influence-peddlers, but family farmers and the American people. That is the kind of leadership embodied by Ken Salazar…Ken will bring to the Department of the Interior an abiding commitment to this land we love.

Here in Colorado we think we know Salazar pretty well.

He practiced law as a water and environmental attorney. In the early ’90s, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer named him to lead the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR). While there he helped author legislation to create Great Outdoors Colorado. GOCo funds help to protect thousands of acres of Colorado riparian habitat from development. When you drive up the Rio Grande, Saguache Creek, Colorado River, Dolores River or many other streams across the state and see them in the natural or agricultural state, devoid of condos and sub-divisions, you get a feel for the far-reaching effects of the program. Salazar would likely — owing to his leadership style — acknowledge the work of those who came after him at DNR, but he was there at the start.

Looking for common ground
Many across the country already know the senator but are wondering what they can expect from him at Interior.

I was able to talk yesterday to Steve Berry, who works for Colorado Springs Utilities. Berry credited Salazar with being, “instrumental on encouraging collaboration on Fountain Creek.”

A couple of years ago, when lawsuits were pending from Pueblo County and the Sierra club over pollution of the creek from Colorado Springs’ sewage spills, Salazar visited the area and told officials and friends of Fountain Creek that he envisioned a day when the creek could be a “Crown Jewel,” for Pueblo and El Paso counties. He urged interested parties to get behind the efforts of the fledgling Fountain Creek Task Force and promised to use his office to help secure funding and to get the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and other federal agencies to the table. This week both El Paso County and Pueblo County approved an intergovernmental agreement that will set up state authority to manage and develop the watershed — a direct outgrowth of the efforts of the task force.

“We appreciate the senator for his support and leadership,” said Berry, adding, “He is a good listener.”

The senator’s willingness to compromise on development issues scares some environmentalists. One example is his support for offshore drilling. While Salazar underscores the need to develop responsibly he doesn’t choose to side with the environmental lobby in opposing all offshore drilling.

He approaches problems pragmatically rather that ideologically. I think it comes from coaxing a living out of the ground. His family members are long-time farmers in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. The challenges of farming require action. A farmer relies on personal experience and those that are wiser, more knowledgeable and willing to offer counsel. In his career, Salazar has shown that he will weigh opposing opinions and try to be respectful of others.

Early in his Senate career he helped the U.S. Senate avoid the “nuclear option” so-called because it would have radically changed the Senate rules and the ability to filibuster. He was part of a coalition that enabled President Bush to push through the nominations of three appeals court judges with an “up or down” vote without the threat of a filibuster.

The Associated Press writes:

Salazar has a reputation among Democrats as a maverick, once joining 13 moderate senators to block his party from a filibuster of appellate nominees by President Bush. He joined another bipartisan group to prevent renewal of parts of the Patriot Act because of concerns about civil liberties, and he upset Democrats when he backed Alberto Gonzales, Bush’s nominee for attorney general.

Salazar did eventually withdraw his support of Gonzales — calling on his friend to resign — in the wake of the U.S. Attorney scandal and evidence that the former AG had “politicized” the agency.

When faced with voting for Chief Justice John Roberts Salazar said, “In the West, you take people at their word. Based on the word given by Judge John Roberts, I will cast my vote for his confirmation as Chief Justice of the United States.”

Develop but develop responsibly
Last summer gasoline was approaching $4 a gallon for much of the nation. In the heat of a historic presidential election, Republicans were looking for wedge issues that would help defeat Democratic nominee Barack Obama. Often, when John McCain appeared on the stump, the chant, “Drill baby drill,” would rise up from the crowd. It was a simple message for a very complex situation.

Suddenly oil shale started to get the attention of Americans. The U.S. Geological Society (USGS) estimates that Colorado alone has a trillion barrels of oil locked up in oil shale. Citing the terrible environmental effects of producing oil shale with current technologies, Salazar said he wanted the Bush administration to slow down on setting royalties and establishing rules for development. Further he argued that any acceptable technology for economically and environmentally acceptable production was years away. For example, last spring Shell told me they were at least seven years out from commercial production. They’ve since raised that estimate to 10 to 15 years.

Salazar was around in the early ’80s when Exxon pulled the plug on their Colony Oil Shale Project in the Piceance Basin in northwestern Colorado. He saw the effects of boom and bust in Colorado. He also knows that oil shale has been the “Next Big Thing” in Colorado for more than 100 years now.

The senator also brought attention to the water requirements that oil shale may have. No one knows — since there is no new production technology to measure — but the expected three to five new coal-fired power plants would consume a huge amount of water for cooling. There just isn’t that much water left undeveloped in Colorado and it may be needed to water the unbridled growth along Colorado’s Front Range.

Salazar looked at the science and the engineering and remains steadfast in his opposition to moving too quickly to develop oil shale. He wants to minimize the impact of oil shale development on Colorado’s water, agriculture, infrastructure and recreation.

I’m an unabashed water nut. Water chops are my No. 1 requirement for the secretary of interior. Salazar is second to none in water experience. He was an irrigator growing up. He practiced water law. He oversaw the Colorado departments that implement water policy in the state.

During the Senate race in 2004, Salazar promised to protect Colorado’s water interests. Coloradans saw him in action during the presidential election this year.

John McCain was probably tired from campaigning and forgot that he was in Denver not Phoenix. He told the Pueblo Chieftain that the seven Colorado River Compact states should renegotiate the Colorado River Compact.

Salazar jumped on the statement, moving quickly to take a stand against renegotiation. He was ready for a fight to the death over the compact according to news reports at the time. A little dramatic, of course, but illustrative of the senator’s willingness to fight for things he believes in.

Ken Salazar has produced much over the years in Colorado. One highlight is his involvement with the cleanup of the South Platte River through Denver. The Greenway Foundation worked with the senator during and immediately after his tenure at DNR. According to the director of the foundation, Jeff Shoemaker, Salazar “was instrumental in putting together a broad-based coalition of private and public entities that formed the South Platte River Commission,” the project implemented during the Wellington Webb administration. Salazar played a big role in, “securing funding for the commission from the Army Corps of Engineers,” Shoemaker said.

Shoemaker went on to say that he is, “Pleased for the river, the foundation, Colorado and the nation that Ken Salazar will be Secretary of Interior,” and that, “Ken chose to serve as a of a personal commitment to public service. He could have chosen much more lucrative options.

“The Greenway Foundation has no better friend than Ken Salazar,” said Shoemaker.

A good choice
Obama’s nomination of Ken Salazar appears to be a good move. He is knowledgeable in the areas required of the secretary of interior. He trusts scientific evidence and will require responsible development from the extractive industries. He will compromise and is not ideological in his decisions while being steadfast in his views when necessary. He will fight for issues he believes in while striving to understand dissenting views. He will look for common ground, collaboration and consensus.

Perhaps the most important qualification for Salazar is that he will hit the ground running. He is conversant on the issues he will face as secretary. While there is always a learning curve, he has led a large organization that deals with many of the same issues that Interior faces.

I’m with President-elect Obama on this one.

Denver native John Orr is with Denver Public Works’ Wastewater Division. He is the author of, the pre-eminent blog on water and environmental issues.

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