Wildlife Management Institute

Centrist Politicians Nominated to Head Key Resource Departments in New Administration PDF Print
Wednesday, 14 January 2009 16:07

Tom VilsackSenator Ken SalazarThe Senate this week held confirmation hearings for President-elect Obama’s choices for cabinet positions, including those managing departments impacting wildlife and natural resource conservation.  In mid-December, Obama announced his selection of Senator Ken Salazar from Colorado as his nominee for Secretary of the Interior and former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as his nominee for Secretary of Agriculture. 

Both appointees are seen as moderates, with histories of negotiating common-sense resolution to land-management conflicts, reports the Wildlife Management Institute.  

“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,” stated Obama in his remarks when he formally nominated both Vilsack and Salazar. “That means ensuring that, even as we are promoting development where it makes sense, we are also fulfilling our obligation to protect our national treasures. It means ensuring that we are using our farmlands not only to strengthen our agricultural economy, but to grow advanced biofuels that will help make the United States energy independent. And it means 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.”

Responsible for the majority of federal public lands as well as the nation’s wildlife and mineral resources, the Department of the Interior has a broad mandate to balance the many uses of these resources. In addition, Salazar will be inheriting a department that has faced numerous scandals in recent years.  But Salazar himself is seen as a consensus builder who does not base policy decisions on ideology.

Salazar is a fifth generation rancher from the San Luis Valley in southcentral Colorado.  After practicing law, focusing on water rights issues, Salazar was appointed as Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources in 1990.  During his tenure, he helped author the Great Outdoors Colorado Act—a state constitutional amendment that dedicates a portion of state lottery revenue to land and wildlife conservation, education and recreation.  He served as Colorado’s attorney general before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004.  While in the Senate, Salazar has taken a leadership role on domestic energy issues.

“If confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, I will do all I can to help reduce America's dangerous dependence on foreign oil. I will be working directly with President-elect Obama as we take the moon shot on energy independence,” stated Salazar in his remarks when accepting the nomination. “That energy imperative will create jobs here in America, protect our national security, and confront the dangers of global warming.   In the Cabinet, I look forward to helping build our clean energy economy, modernize our interstate electrical grid, and ensure that we are making wise use of our conventional natural resources.”

Like Salazar, Vilsack is largely considered a moderate, but some questions have been raised about his close ties to traditional agriculture and agribusiness. As the former governor of the nation’s leading corn- and soybean-producing state, Vilsack has been a strong supporter for corn-based ethanol and biofuels, much like President-elect Obama has been.  In TIME magazine, Michael Grunwald pointed out that, “using cropland to grow fuel is an environmental and economic catastrophe, accelerating the conversion of forests and wetlands into new cropland while jacking up food prices around the world.”  However, Vilsack also has been a strong supporter of farm-conservation programs, clean water regulations and initiatives to relieve global warming.  

Vilsack began his political career as the mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and was elected to the Iowa State Senate in 1992 and as Iowa Governor in 1998.  During his tenure as a governor, Vilsack was active in the National and Democratic Governors Associations.  He chaired the Governors Biotechnology Partnership and the Governors Ethanol Coalition.  He also served as chair and vice chair of the National Governors Association's committee on Natural Resources, during which time he worked to develop the association’s farm and energy policies.  Vilsack was an early candidate for President during the 2008 campaign, but withdrew in early 2007, citing difficulty in fund raising for the campaign.

“[The Department of Agriculture] must aggressively promote policies and programs that support sustainable practices, to conserve and preserve our precious natural resources—our land, our water and our forest,” Vilsack said when he formally accepted the nomination. “It must work in concert with other federal departments, state and local governments and the private sector to promote American leadership in response to global climate change.”

Both Salazar and Vilsack will have challenges to implement the Obama Administration’s vision of change while leading large and complex departments.  In addition, the vision and direction of natural resource conservation still is largely undefined with the new Administration.  However, both nominees appear to have widespread support from a broad spectrum of individuals and organization.   (jas)