Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) announced yesterday that Lynn Y. Buhl, whose appointment to become the state's environmental secretary was rejected last year by the Senate, will soon become the deputy secretary of the Department of Natural Resources.

Buhl became a highly controversial figure during the 2003 legislative session when, for the first time in Maryland history, the state Senate denied a governor's choice for a Cabinet post. At the time, lawmakers and environmental leaders said Buhl did not have the expertise for the job, and the blow to Ehrlich's then-fledgling administration helped touch off intense partisan fighting.

Yesterday, environmentalists again questioned whether Buhl, a former Michigan environmental regulator and automotive industry lawyer, was the right person for such an influential position. The Department of Natural Resources oversees the state's forests, open spaces and waterways. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said the governor's decision was politically motivated.

"This is inside Republican Party politics," Miller said. Ehrlich "is looking for a soft spot for a Republican partisan to land."

During a news conference yesterday, Ehrlich praised the work Buhl has done in the Maryland Department of Planning, where she works as a program manager, and said she was qualified to be the number two person at Natural Resources. The Senate's rejection of her appointment in 2003 "continues to be maybe the worst single moment of the Maryland Senate in recent memory," the governor said.

Ehrlich extolled her role in crafting legislation to clean up polluted industrial sites known as "brownfields" during this year's legislative session and called her "a very bright, talented lady."

His spokeswoman, Shareese N. DeLeaver, said politics has nothing to do with the appointment. "She has the ability and talent, and now she has the job that suits it," DeLeaver said. Senate confirmation is not required for the deputy's position, which reports to department head C. Ronald Franks.

Still, Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the environmental group 1000 Friends of Maryland, called the announcement "puzzling."

"The DNR has been hit hard. We've lost some of the best and the brightest at a time when we have a lot of problems in the Chesapeake Bay," she said. "And I'm not aware of much experience that Lynn has with natural resource issues."

That was the claim leveled against Buhl at a hearing last year, when critics noted that while working for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Buhl was known for scaling back regulations and failing to crack down on polluters. Buhl has also worked as a lawyer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and for DaimlerChrysler Corp.

Sue Brown, a spokeswoman for the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said the organization would be watching Buhl "very closely."

Miller, who voted against Buhl's appointment as environmental secretary, said she would be better suited for "something in the secretary of state's office or a campaign office."

"We need the best person possible for these jobs, and she was already rejected once," Miller said. "I don't begrudge the governor finding a spot for her, but it would seem more appropriate for her to be in a political position rather than in a place where she could affect policy regarding our environment."

Buhl will replace Pete Jensen, a longtime state employee who retired this month but was brought back to be associate deputy secretary at the department. Buhl is expected to start her new job later this summer or early in the fall. Her salary has not yet been decided. She is currently paid $112,454.

Staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.