Colo. trio focuses on science, ethics at Interior
summit daily news
SUMMIT COUNTY – A triumvirate of Coloradans plans to lead the U.S. Department of Interior away from its recent history of ethics debacles and into a leadership role on renewable energy and conservation.
Along with Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, Tom Strickland and Will Shafroth have been appointed to top positions in the department. They hope to apply some successful Colorado tools at the national level, Shafroth said in an interview with the Summit Daily last week.
“This is a time we’re being called in our country,” said Shafroth, referring to the economic challenges of the past year. “And it’s also an important time to invest in a conservation legacy,” he added.
Salazar is a former U.S. senator from Colorado. He’s already made several key decisions affecting resources on public land, including a two-year timeout on uranium exploration near the Grand Canyon and withdrawal of a controversial old growth logging plan in the Pacific Northwest.
“Ken Salazar places a very strong value on making decisions on these things,” Shafroth said. “When (he) speaks about these things … When he puts his shoulders behind them, these things happen in a big way.”
Strickland served as a U.S. Attorney in Colorado and is known for his effective lobbying. The Denver Post called him a “wily political operator who knows how to navigate the corridors of Washington.”
Strickland owns a vacation house near Breckenridge. Former County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom said Strickland worked for a law firm in Denver that was part of an effort to overturn Summit County’s ban on cyanide heap-leach mining, a controversial, spill-prone technique that uses toxic chemicals to glean gold from low-grade ore.
“He’s kind of an enigma,” Lindstrom said. “He claims to be an environmentalist, yet he lobbied for the mining industry.”
Advocates of mining reform will watch how those ties play out, since Salazar said he thinks it’s time to change the 1872 hard-rock mining act.
Shafroth is well-known to many Summit County residents, both from his bid for Congress last year and for his leadership of Great Outdoors Colorado, which helped fund many key Summit open space and trails projects, including parts of the recpath.
Shafroth is a fourth generation Coloradan. His great-grandfather served in the U.S. House, as governor and U.S. senator between 1896 and 1919 and was in the Senate when the National Park Service was created and Rocky Mountain National Park was established.
As a first step, Shafroth said the department hopes to re-establish some of the trust that was squandered during the previous administration. Under President Bush, top-level officials manipulated scientific reports on endangered species, and an Inspector General report outlined ethic problems, including gifts from energy company executives to Interior Department employees, as well as sexual misconduct.
Salazar has already committed publicly to restoring scientific integrity to the decision-making process. Some conservation groups are still taking a wait-and-see attitude, hoping the agency will do more in the endangered species arena. For now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (responsible for managing endangered species) has launched a review of several decisions that may have been tainted by manipulation.
Shafroth said the Interior Department will try to rebuild trust by establishing a dialogue with the public on important issues. He singled out a series of hearings on offshore energy production as an example. He said thousands of people turned out for the sessions, and were surprised at how well officials listened.
“People were amazed that the Secretary took the time for those meetings,” Shafroth said.
Shafroth said energy is one of the biggest priorities for the department. Resources and projects on federally managed lands already supply about 30 percent of the country’s energy, and the potential for renewable energy production on those lands is huge, Shafroth said. The Interior Department will also move to improve the existing energy grid, much of which traverses federal land.
A treasure landscapes initiative will focus on conservation of natural resources on public land, Shafroth said. The hope is to take some of Colorado’s successful efforts to the national level, including the idea of a dedicated revenue stream for stewardship and conservation.
That could be easier said than done during fiscally challenging times, but Shafroth said Secretary Salazar will take a look at making full use of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That pot of money was established by Congress in 1965, using a portion of receipts from offshore oil and gas leases for state and local conservation, as well as for the protection of our national treasures (parks, forest and wildlife areas).
The Land and Water Conservation Fund has the potential to generate $100 million to $900 million annually.
“It’s hardly ever been fully appropriated at that level,” Shafroth said, explaining it could be a catalyst for additional funding. He said GOCOs successes in Colorado could serve as a model. Since GOCO was launched, numerous local jurisdictions in the state have created their own dedicated funding sources for open space and conservation, he said.
He said federal conservation efforts are facing a huge backlog, and that there is a need to look at large ecosystem-scale preservation efforts, including in the Everglades, Chesapeake Bay and in the Rocky Mountain region.
Finally, Shafroth said the department wants to focus on youth.
“We need to engage young people and expose them to the outdoors and natural resources, with an emphasis on people of color,” he said.
Public land managers have previously said shifting demographics in the U.S. could undercut conservation efforts. Not all parts of the U.S. population share the same values when it comes to the country’s public land heritage.
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