By Juliet Eilperin, Philip Rucker and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 17, 2008 12:43 PM
President-elect Barack Obama today nominated Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) as interior secretary and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack to be secretary of agriculture, adding two centrists with considerable government experience to his nearly complete Cabinet roster.
Salazar, a fifth-generation Coloradan whose family settled in the West before the United States' founding and has ranched and farmed on the same land in the San Luis Valley for more than a century, is better known for brokering deals between warring interests than for outlining an ambitious agenda of conservation. In four years in the Senate, he has pushed to temper energy exploration in the West even as he has backed offshore oil drilling and subsidies for ranchers on public land.
Vilsack, a strong proponent of ethanol who made a brief bid for the presidency in 2007, will lead a sprawling federal bureaucracy charged with overseeing farm subsidies, land conservation, food safety and hunger programs. He has taken a moderate position on the often controversial issue of farm subsidies, siding at times with those favoring a shift of funding in the agriculture budget from traditional subsidies to new kinds of supports for farmers that improve soil and water management.
"Together, they will serve as guardians of the American landscape on which the health of our economy and the well-being of our families so heavily depend," Obama said in introducing Salazar and Vilsack as his latest Cabinet picks. "How we harness our natural resources, from the farmlands of Iowa to the springs of Colorado, will speak not only to our quality of life, but to our economic growth and our energy future."
In a news conference in Chicago, Obama said his administration's policies at the agriculture and interior departments would be "designed to serve not big agribusiness or Washington influence-peddlers, but family farmers and the American people." He said Vilsack "understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oil fields abroad but in our farm fields here at home."
Among Salazar's other responsibilities, the new interior secretary will help "ensure that we finally live up to the treaty obligations that are owed to the first Americans," Obama said.
With this week's appointments, "I am confident that we have the team that we need to make the rural agenda America's agenda, to create millions of new green jobs, to free our nation from its dependence on oil and to help preserve this planet for our children," the president-elect told reporters.
Salazar, wearing a cowboy hat and a Western-style Bolo tie, said that if confirmed as interior secretary, "I will do all I can to help reduce America's dependence on foreign oil." He said he looks forward to working directly with Obama "as we take the moon-shot on energy independence" and "confront the dangers of global warming."
Vilsack pledged that the agriculture department would play a role in "providing American leadership on climate change and making America a nation truly dedicated to health and nutrition."
In response to questions, Obama said the Interior Department has been "deeply troubled" under the Bush administration and "too often has been seen as an appendage of commercial interests as opposed to a place where the values and interests of the American people are served." He said he wants a "more proactive Interior Department" rather than one "that sees its job as simply sitting back waiting for whoever has most access in Washington to extract what they want."
"I also want an Interior Department that, very frankly, cleans up its act," Obama said. "There have been too many problems and too much emphasis on big-time lobbyists in Washington and not enough emphasis on what's good for the American people, and that's going to change under Ken Salazar."
Both environmentalists and food industry leaders reacted positively to Vilsack's nomination.
"We're encouraged by it," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. "He thinks we need to reform the subsidy system, he recognizes the importance of the food programs, and he's very good on conservation."
Left as an infant at a Roman Catholic orphanage, Vilsack was raised by his adoptive parents in Pittsburgh. He settled in his wife's home town of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and was elected governor in 1998, serving two four-year terms.
Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, called Vilsack a "great choice" who "has an understanding of the challenges and opportunities that exist in rural America."
Several experts who have worked with Salazar over the years, including gas and mining officials, farm groups and national environmental leaders, said they expect him to support Obama's energy and environmental agenda rather than attempt to set his own policy course. While both Gale A. Norton and Dirk Kempthorne frequently clashed with liberal groups while heading the agency under President Bush, those experts predicted that Salazar is more likely to pursue compromises that might ease tensions over drilling, mining and endangered species protection on public and private land.
"He's going to be an honest broker, and there are going to be competing interests in this job," said Bill Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, an advocacy group. "He is trying to manage conflicts in a way that reaches resolution. I'm not sure he's articulated a grand vision for the public lands."
Like Meadows, most environmentalists interviewed praised Salazar's selection, as did leaders of pro-business groups, who described him as a willing listener who recognizes the need for domestic energy and agricultural production. But the pick has angered some green activists, who said a more aggressive liberal was needed to overhaul an agency that has been dogged by controversy during Bush's presidency.
"The most important task facing the next interior secretary is reforming the Department of Interior from the bottom up, and I'm not seeing anything to suggest that he's a visionary or a reformer," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "He's better than what's come before, but it looks like it's going to limp along as a semi-broken agency."
Salazar's name did not surface as a serious contender for interior secretary until last week, and many environmental activists had first backed New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who opted for the post of commerce secretary, and later Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) for the job. Last week, more than 150 sent a letter to Obama backing Grijalva, who has challenged the Bush administration on several fronts as chairman of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands.
Salazar fueled his career in Colorado by attracting bipartisan support and became the first Latino elected statewide when he won election as attorney general there a decade ago, and has worked to balance traditional energy development with a measure of environmental safeguards.
Marc W. Smith, executive director for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, noted that Salazar has backed offshore drilling for oil and gas and supported the use of natural gas as a backstop for renewable energy supplies because it burns cleaner than petroleum.
"More often than not, we agree on the goal, but as expected, we aren't always going to agree on the approach," Smith said in an interview. "He certainly understands that natural gas is a central element of a long-term national energy supply."
National Mining Association spokeswoman Carol Raulston said her group has had an excellent relationship with Salazar going back to his time in state government. She noted that the Democrat has pushed for a "good Samaritan" bill that would make it easier to clean up abandoned mines by exempting any firm that did so from some of the legal liability and environmental requirements associated with such activities, and that he has backed federal funding for carbon sequestration that could help mining companies.
"He's a very knowledgeable problem solver, very straightforward," she said.
Since coming to the Senate in 2005, Salazar has sought to put the brakes on some of the Bush administration's plans for energy development in his home state, arguing that Interior should lease the ecologically sensitive Roan Plateau in stages rather than all at once, and that the agency needed to spend more time examining the environmental impact of Western commercial oil shale development. Although Salazar did succeed in putting oil shale development on hold for a year by inserting language into a spending bill that called for additional study, the administration has pushed ahead with new oil shale regulations and held a lease sale on Roan Plateau holdings in August.
Dwayne Meadows, a field representative for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which focuses on the inner Mountain West, said Salazar's moderate approach should produce concrete policy results in an Obama administration.
"He's been supportive of public lands energy development, but he thinks it needs to be done responsibly and protect the other uses out there," Meadows said. "He didn't say, 'Don't drill the Roan Plateau,' but, 'Make sure you protect hunting and fishing recreational uses as well.' "
Staff writer Dan Morgan and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.