Muckraker: Grist on Politics

Barack Obama is scheduled to officially announce his key energy and environmental appointments today at 5 p.m. EST, but one important spot is likely to remain unfilled for a few more days: secretary of the interior.

Early on, it seemed like Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva was the likely pick. But sources close to the transition say some concerns were raised about him, leading the transition team to consider California Rep. Mike Thompson (D) and Kevin Gover, the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and a former assistant secretary of the interior for Indian affairs. There have also been ongoing rumors that David Hayes, who is overseeing the transition for EPA, Interior, Energy, and Agriculture, could himself be tapped to head DOI. Hayes was a deputy secretary at the Interior Department during the Clinton years.

But today the rumor mill for DOI is focusing on Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar and John Berry, director of the National Zoo, who served as an assistant interior secretary during the Clinton administration. Sources have listed each of the men as the “top contender” for the post.

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The Denver Post is reporting that Salazar is “poised to head” the department. He has served in the Senate since 2005, where he has been a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee as well as the Agriculture Committee. Salazar has been active on a number of Western resource issues, and has been an outspoken opponent of Bush administration moves to open up land in Colorado and other Western states to oil-shale development.

Salazar was raised on a ranch in Colorado, and farmed for 30 years. He and his wife also owned several small businesses, including a Dairy Queen and radio stations. Before entering politics, he was a private-sector attorney focusing on water and environmental law, and from 1987 to 1994 he was chief legal counsel to Colorado Gov. Roy Romer (D) and executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. From 1999 to 2005, Salazar was the attorney general of Colorado. His predecessor as state AG, Gale Norton, was Bush’s first secretary of the interior.

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Salazar got an 85 percent score from the League of Conservation Voters for his voting during the 110th Congress, and has an 81 percent lifetime score.

Salazar added some fuel to rumors over the weekend by canceling his appearances and engagements for Monday through Wednesday, citing bad weather in parts of Colorado. (There has also been talk that his brother, John Salazar, who represents Colorado’s 3rd district in the House, is a candidate for secretary of agriculture.)

John Berry is another name that’s popped up of late for interior secretary. Before becoming director of the National Zoo in 2005, Berry was executive director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on conservation. From 1997 to 2001, he was the assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at the Interior Department, under then-Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Berry had previously worked as the director of government relations and a senior policy adviser for the Smithsonian from 1995 to 1997, and as legislative director for Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and associate staff for the House Appropriations Committee from 1985 to 1994.

One concern for some enviros is that Berry is a member of the Outdoor Resources Review Group for the American Recreation Coalition, which has lobbied to increase motorized-vehicle access to national parks. ARC’s “sustaining members” include the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, the American Council of Snowmobile Associations, and the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (as well as the American Association for Nude Recreation, for what that’s worth).

Berry was the point person at DOI when the Recreational Fee Demonstration Program was put in place in 1996. ARC supported the pilot program, which started charging fees to members of the public who wanted to recreate on public lands, but many in the environmental community opposed the fees, saying they would limit low-income people’s access to public lands. (Ken Salazar was one of the cosponsors of a bill earlier this year to repeal such fees.)

Berry, who is openly gay, has the support of a number of LGBT groups, including the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign.

But some conservation folks are lashing out against the possibility that he might be appointed.

There are also rumors that Washington state Rep. Jay Inslee and former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber are still in the running for interior secretary.