From Fuming to Praising: Twitter and the Green Reaction to Obama’s Selection of Salazar as Interior Secretary

  • Published on December 17th, 2008

[social_buttons]On Tuesday afternoon, as I was working on another piece about president-elect Barack Obama tapping Colorado Senator Ken Salazar for Interior Secretary—this time about how Salazar’s appointment to Interior won’t leave his successor much time to win over Colorado voters—I heard Jeff Brady report on National Public Radio that environmentalists were fuming over the Salazar appointment.

“Fuming?” I thought to myself, “maybe that’s a bit of a mischaracterization.” So, as I will often do, I decided to share my thoughts with the Twitterverse and sent out the following message on Twitter:

In Brady’s report (and in his defense) he cited an action last week, when more than 150 environmental groups signed a letter to Obama backing Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva. But I still thought the instant assumption that “most environmentalists are fuming” was hasty. And then I got the following response from @HuffingtonPost/@COindependent:

huffington post reply to ecopolitologist on twitter

To which I replied (and misspelled Grijalva):

Now, I follow @NPRPolitics on Twitter and I know they follow me back, but I really don’t know if they caught any of this exchange, but the next time I heard Brady’s report on NPR, he said something like “many environmentalists are fuming,” and the third time I heard the report it was something along the lines of “some environmentalists are fuming.”

So when I was pouring through my RSS feader this morning looking for all these fumes, they were few and far between (i.e thus far, non-existent). Instead, I found mainstream environmental groups showering praise, albeit measured, on the selection of Salazar.

Carl Pope of the Sierra Club wrote:

“The Sierra Club is very pleased with the nomination of Ken Salazar to head the Interior Department. As a Westerner and a rancher, he understands the value of our public lands, parks, and wildlife and has been a vocal critic of the Bush Administration’s reckless efforts to sell-off our public lands to Big Oil and other special interests. Senator Salazar has been a leader in protecting places like the Roan Plateau and he has stood up against the Bush’s administration’s dangerous rush to develop oil shale in Colorado and across the West.

“Senator Salazar has also been a leading voice in calling for the development of the West’s vast solar, wind, and geothermal resources. He will make sure that we create the good-paying green jobs that will fuel our economic recovery without harming the public lands he will be charged with protecting.

“Senator Salazar will inherit an agency that has suffered from a pervasive rot under the Bush administration due to widespread corruption, simple incompetence, and severe underfunding. We are confident that Senator Salazar will work with President-Elect Obama to undo the damage of the Bush years and chart a course that will allow this vast agency to return to its proud legacy of protecting our last wild places, wildlife, and vast natural resources.”

NRDC President Frances Bienecke wrote an excellent piece about the tough job ahead for Salazar and expressed why she has hope he is the right person

“Salazar’s own connection to the land gives me hope. Salazar is a fifth-generation Coloradan who grew up on a cattle and alfalfa ranch without running water or electricity. His home was is in the stunning San Luis Valley, where rich ranching and farming land is banked by the wild San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges.

As a senator, Salazar supported his state’s efforts to limit the impacts to groundwater from the heavily polluting process of in-situ uranium mining and taken often lonely stands against oil shale. Still, the challenges before Salazar are great, and he will need to be a forceful leader for change.”

The New Republic‘s Bradford Plummer sharply pointed out that Salazar won’t be breaking the ‘iron triangle’ (read: old boys club) of backdoor administrative rulemaking:

Salazar, for his part, is a relatively green pick. He has an 81 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, and has been critical of the Bush administration’s plans to expedite oil-shale drilling in Colorado and other Western states, on account of the environmental damage it would wreak. He’s reportedly close to Obama, which will bolster his effectiveness, as will his longstanding ties to the American West.

Pam Kiely of Environment Colorado was also pleased with the choice of Salazar, while recognizing his pragmatism:

“In Washington, Sen. Salazar fought to protect our nation’s treasures such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He’s championed wilderness for Dominguez Canyon, Browns Canyon, and Rocky Mountain National Park. Sen. Salazar has championed a cautious approach to oil shale to protect our public lands and water resources.”

While this certainly does not exhaust the universe of reactions to the Salazar appointment, it just goes to show you that: A) Environmentalists are not a homogeneous, and B) You can’t believe everything you hear — even on NPR.

Follow Tim Hurst on Twitter: @ecopolitologist
Follow Red, Green, and Blue on Twitter: @redgreenandblue

About the Author

is the founder of ecopolitology and the executive editor at LiveOAK Media, a media network about the politics of energy and the environment, green business, cleantech, and green living. When not reading, writing, thinking or talking about environmental politics with anyone who will listen, Tim spends his time skiing in Colorado's high country, hiking with his dog, and getting dirty in his vegetable garden.


  • Weekend Edition
    December 19 – 21, 2008

    How to Make Bruce Babbitt Look Like Ed Abbey
    Salazar and the Tragedy of the Common Ground

    Although America’s greatest Interior Secretary, Harold Ickes, who had the post for nearly a decade under FDR, was from Chicago, the playbook for presidential transitions calls for picking a Westerner for Interior, as long as the nominee isn’t a Californian. Pick someone from Arizona or New Mexico or Colorado. Of course, Colorado has produced two of the worst recent Interior Secretaries: James Watt and Gale Norton. Ken Salazar may make it three.

    And why not? After all, Salazar was one of the first to endorse Gale Norton’s nomination as Bush’s Interior Secretary.

    By almost any standard, it’s hard to imagine a more uninspired or uninspiring choice for the job than professional middle-of-the-roader Ken Salazar, the conservative Democrat from Colorado. This pal of Alberto Gonzalez is a meek politician, who has never demonstrated the stomach for confronting the corporate bullies of the west: the mining, timber and oil companies who have been feasting on Interior Department handouts for the past eight years. Even as attorney general of Colorado, Salazar built a record of timidity when it came to going after renegade mining companies.

    The editorial pages of western papers have largely hailed Salazar’s nomination. The common theme seems to be that Salazar will be “an honest broker.” But broker of what? Mining claims and oil leases, most likely.

    Less defensible are the dial-o-matic press releases faxed out by the mainstream groups, greenwashing Salazar’s dismal record. Here’s Carl Pope, CEO of the Sierra Club, who fine-tuned this kind of rhetorical airbrushing during the many traumas of the Clinton years:

    “The Sierra Club is very pleased with the nomination of Ken Salazar to head the Interior Department. As a Westerner and a rancher, he understands the value of our public lands, parks, and wildlife and has been a vocal critic of the Bush Administration’s reckless efforts to sell-off our public lands to Big Oil and other special interests. Senator Salazar has been a leader in protecting places like the Roan Plateau and he has stood up against the Bush’s administration’s dangerous rush to develop oil shale in Colorado and across the West.

    “Senator Salazar has also been a leading voice in calling for the development of the West’s vast solar, wind, and geothermal resources. He will make sure that we create the good-paying green jobs that will fuel our economic recovery without harming the public lands he will be charged with protecting.”

    Who knew that strip-mining for coal, an industry Salazar resolutely promotes, was a green job? Hold on tight, here we go once more down the rabbit hole.

    The Sierra Club had thrown its organizational heft behind Mike Thompson, the hook-and-rifle Democratic congressman from northern California. Obama stiffed them and got away with it without enduring even a whimper of disappointment.

    In the exhaust-stream, not far beyond Pope, came an organization (you can’t call them a group, since they don’t really have any members) called the Campaign for American Wilderness, lavishly endowed by the centrist Pew Charitable Trusts, to fete Salazar. According to Mike Matz, the Campaign’s executive director, Salazar “has been a strong proponent of protecting federal lands as wildernessŠAs a farmer, a rancher, and a conservationist, Sen. Salazar understands the importance of balancing traditional uses of our public lands with the need to protect them. His knowledge of land management issues in the West, coupled with his ability to work with diverse groups and coalitions to find common ground, will serve him well at the Department of the Interior.”

    Whenever seasoned greens see the word “common ground” invoked as a solution for thorny land use issues in the Interior West it sets off an early warning alarm. “Common ground” is another flex-phrase like, “win-win” solution that indicates greens will be handed a few low-calorie crumbs while business will proceed to gorge as usual.

    In Salazar’s case, these morsels have been a few measly wilderness areas inside non-contentious areas, such as Rocky Mountain National Park. Designating a wilderness inside a national park is about as risky as placing the National Mall off-limits to oil drilling.

    But Salazar’s green gifts haven’t come without a cost. In the calculus of common ground politics, trade-offs come with the territory. For example, Salazar, under intense pressure from Coloradoans, issued a tepid remonstrance against the Bush administration’s maniacal plan to open up the Roan Plateau in western Colorado to oil drilling. But he voted to authorize oil drilling off the coast of Florida, voted against increased fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks and voted against the repeal of tax breaks for Exxon-Mobil when the company was shattering records for quarterly profits.

    On the very day that Salazar’s nomination was leaked to the press, the Inspector General for the Interior Department released a devastating report on the demolition of the Endangered Species Act under the Bush administration, largely at the hands of the disgraced Julie MacDonald, former Deputy Secretary of Interior for Fish and Wildlife. The IG report, written by Earl Devaney, detailed how MacDonald personally interfered with 13 different endangered species rulings, bullying agency scientists and rewriting biological opinions. “MacDonald injected herself personally and profoundly in a number of ESA decisions,” Devaney wrote in a letter to Oregon Senator Ron Wyden. “We determined that MacDonald’s management style was abrupt and abrasive, if not abusive, and that her conduct demoralized and frustrated her staff as well as her subordinate managers.”

    What McDonald did covertly, Salazar might attempt openly in the name of, yes, common ground. Take the case of the white-tailed prairie dog, one of the declining species that MacDonald went to nefarious lengths to keep from enjoying the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Prairie dogs are viewed as pests by ranchers and their populations have been remorselessly targeted for elimination on rangelands across the Interior West.

    Ken Salazar, former rancher, once threatened to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service to keep the similarly imperiled black-footed ferret off the endangered species list. The senator also fiercely opposed efforts to inscribe stronger protections for endangered species in the 2008 Farm Bill.

    “The Department of the Interior desperately needs a strong, forward looking, reform-minded Secretary,” says Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. “Unfortunately, Ken Salazar is not that man. He endorsed George Bush’s selection of Gale Norton as Secretary of Interior, the very woman who initiated and encouraged the scandals that have rocked the Department of the Interior. Virtually all of the misdeeds described in the Inspector General’s expose occurred during the tenure of the person Ken Salazar advocated for the position he is now seeking.”

    As a leading indicator of just how bad Salazar may turn out to be, an environmentalist need only bushwhack through the the few remaining daily papers to the stock market pages, where energy speculators, cheered at the Salazar pick, drove up the share price of coal companies, such as Peabody, Massey Energy and Arch Coal. The battered S&P Coal index rose by three per cent on the day Obama introduced the coal-friendly Salazar as his nominee.

    Say this much for Salazar: he’s not a Clinton retread. In fact, he makes Clinton Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt look like Ed Abbey. The only way to redeem Clinton’s sory record on the environment is for Obama to be worse.

    As Hot Rod Blajogevich demonstrated in his earthy vernacular, politics is a pay-to-play sport. Like Ken Salazar, Barack Obama’s political underwriters included oil-and-gas companies, utilities, financial houses, agribusiness giants, such as Archer Daniels Midlands, and coal companies. These bundled campaign contributions dwarfed the money given to Obama by environmentalists, many of whom backed Hillary in the Democratic Party primaries.

    Environmentalists made no demands of Obama during the election and sat silently as he backed off-shore oil drilling, pledged to build new nuclear plants and sang the virtues of the oxymoron known as clean-coal technology. At this point, the president-elect probably feels he owes them no favors. And he gave them none. The environmental establishment cheered.

    So the environmental movement has once again been left out in the cold, begging Rahm Emmanuel for a few sub-cabinet appointments. They may get one or two positions out of a couple hundred slots. But Big Green’s docile genuflections to Salazar won’t make those table-scraps go down any smoother.

    Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is just out from AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at:

  • Obama’s Appointments Reveal What’s Wrong with the Environmental Establishment
    Green Myopia

    Several of the environmental movement’s deep problems were displayed during the December 18th edition of Democracy Now. During the broadcast Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales conducted interview/debates on two Obama appointments which are critical to the environment – Agriculture Secretary and Interior Secretary. In each case a representative of National Audubon supported the nominations. Opposing the appointment of Tom Vilsack for Ag Secretary was Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association ; Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity critiqued the nomination of Colorado Senator and rancher Ken Salizar as Interior Secretary.

    Vilsak’s appointment is opposed by many in the organic and sustainable agriculture communities who point to his record as a strong supporter of industrial agriculture, ethanol over food production and genetically engineered crops. Vilsak is reported to accept rides on Monsanto corporate jets – a cozy relationship. Rather than make common cause with progressive agriculture, however, National Audubon and the other members of the environmental establishment support Vilsak’s appointment. Democracy Now wanted to know why and the Audubon spokesperson offered Vilsak’s support for limits on payments to rich farmers and his support for USDA’s conservation programs as reasons.

    Apparently National Audubon is clueless about the strategy of big agriculture to shift from crop subsidies to “conservation” subsidies in order to advance free trade agreements at the same time that the USDA “conservation programs” are transformed from benefiting the environment to mainly benefiting Ag producers. This trend was evident in the 2008 Farm Bill process. In the House of Representatives, for example, language in the Farm Bill which would have required a 15% reduction in on-farm water consumption in order for an Ag producer to qualify for EQIP water conservation funding was gutted. Several national environmental groups were complicit in what they called “a compromise” on EQIP.

    The Democracy Now debate over the appointment of Salazar as Interior Secretary showcased another fundamental division within the environmental community. Representing the environmental establishment, National Audubon explained its support for Salazar as motivated by a desire to preserve “access” to the Secretary. In contrast the Center for Biological Diversity – which is a product of the movement by grassroots environmental activists to create alternatives to the environmental establishment – is critical of Salazar because of his terrible record on public land issues and the Endangered Species Act.

    It appears clear that Salazar will not bring the kind of change that environmental activists would like to see at Interior. The environmental establishment’s support for the appointment, therefore, speaks volumes about that establishment’s low expectations, overly close identification with the Democratic Party and myopic fixation on “maintaining access”.

    The environmental establishment’s support for Vilsak and Salizar also reveals a much more fundamental problem: their lack of interest in making common cause with progressive movements. The need for alliances of environmental groups and other progressive movements has been emphasized recently in the writings of one of the movement’s most distinguished elders – Gus Speth. Now the dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Speth is a founder of NRDC and was head of the Council on Environmental Quality during the Carter Administration.

    Writing this October in the Nation, Gus Speth notes that “the environmental community has grown in strength and sophistication, but the environment has continued to deteriorate.” Speth finds the cause of the deterioration in “modern capitalism” which he says not only degrades the environment but degrades society and democracy at the same time. In response to this “inherently ruthless, rapacious system,” Gus Speth finds “the best hope for change” in “a fusion of those concerned about the environment, social justice and strong democracy into one powerful progressive force.” Speth also tells us that “this fusion must occur before it is too late.”

    If Gus Speth’s prescription for saving the planet and democracy had been applied to efforts to influence the Agriculture and Interior appointments we would not see the environmental establishment represented by National Audubon taking a position which isolates it not only from progressive agriculture but also from the environmental movement’s own grassroots. Instead we would have seen those who want to save the environment, small, organic agriculture and democracy united in support of truly progressive candidates.

    So what can be done to change the current myopia of the environmental establishment, to get the big environmental groups to embrace and prioritize “a fusion of those concerned about the environment, social justice and strong democracy into one powerful progressive force”?

    There are no easy answers. For one thing we need to be careful that in seeking to reform the environmental establishment we do not destroy institutions whose work in the trenches in Washington DC and state capitals across the country needs to continue. With all their problems the national environmental establishment continues to do good work on a myriad of specific issues. Rather than destroy the environmental establishment we need to radically reform it. How can this be accomplished?

    Perhaps the environmental movements own grassroots can show the way. If groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, for example, were to forge strong alliances with other progressive movements – with the peace, justice, democracy, sustainable agriculture movements – the big national groups, the environmental establishment, might wake up and take notice. And if the foundations which fund the environmental establishment began shifting funding to such progressive alliances, then the establishment would not only take notice but would begin to change.

    This sort of change has, in fact, happened before. In the 1990s National Audubon and the rest of the environmental establishment were too timid and too concerned about “maintaining access” to consider petitioning to secure Endangered Species Act protection for the Northern Spotted Owl, Coho Salmon or a host of other imperiled species. Instead of accepting that timidity, however, grassroots forest and salmon activists took matters into their own hands. The Northern Spotted Owl was petitioned by a small, little known group from Maine; Coho salmon where petitioned by Northwest and Northern California grassroots activists and scientists. Soon foundation funding began flowing away from the big, establishment groups and toward the dynamic grassroots. One group of those activists became the Center for Biological Diversity.

    What happened next is instructive. The environmental establishment suddenly woke up and became less timid. They moved to link up with the grassroots in alliances and coalitions which brought some of the funding back their way and allowed them to continue to claim that they were leading the highest profile environmental and public land movements – including the movements to protect Ancient Forests and Pacific Salmon.

    Persuading the environmental establishment to form alliances with other progressive movements will likely require something the establishment will see as equally threatening to their bottom line. Whether coming from foundations or from members who begin to question their performance, funding is a powerful motivator for the environmental establishment.

    However it occurs, the grand alliance of movements which Gus Speth envisions is likely the only way to effectively counter the entrenched power of the modern corporate elite and save the earth from the fate those corporate interests ordain. Getting the environmental establishment to embrace such a grand alliance, however, will require a radical shake up – a shake up which demands that the environmental establishment once again become part of a movement with a vision and agenda that is much broader than the narrow objectives of its constituent organizations.

    Felice Pace has been a grassroots environmental, peace and justice activist since 1967. He lives and writes near the mouth of the Klamath River in Northwest California.

  • When i heard Jeff Brady’s story the other day, my immediate thought was, “he has an ax to grind with Salazar.” Being a Colorado environmentalist, I have no qualms with Salazar, and think his moderate viewpoints make him someone that can get things done.
    Eric West

  • Fair enough. And while I see your point (especially in terms of the position mainstream enviro orgs. like SC and NRDC often take), I'm looking forward to hearing more from the smaller organizations about specifically why they don't like Salazar.

  • On this issue as with agriculture, the corporate green groups (Sierra Club, NRDC) are happy with the corporate-friendly picks of Salazar and Vilsack. But the grassroots, who worked their tails off for Obama and are on the front lines of protecting places, species, and our food system feel kicked in the gut. You will find a negative correlation between the size of the group and their willingness to take a position that actually speaks the truth about these picks.

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