A Paler Shade of Green: Obama and the Environment

The following is excerpted from Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion edited by Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank.

Although America’s greatest Interior Secretary, Harold Ickes, who had the post for nearly a decade under FDR, was from Chicago, the playbook for presidential transitions calls for picking a Westerner for Interior, as long as the nominee isn’t a Californian. Pick someone from Arizona or New Mexico or Colorado. Of course, Colorado has produced two of the worst recent Interior Secretaries: James Watt and Gale Norton. Ken Salazar may make it three.

And why not? After all, Salazar was one of the first to endorse Gale Norton’s nomination as Bush’s Interior Secretary. By almost any standard, it’s hard to imagine a more uninspired or uninspiring choice for the job than professional middle-of-the-roader Ken Salazar, the conservative Democrat from Colorado. This pal of Alberto Gonzalez is a meek politician, who has never demonstrated the stomach for confronting the corporate bullies of the West: the mining, timber and oil companies who have been feasting on Interior Department handouts for the past eight years. Even as attorney general of Colorado, Salazar built a record of timidity when it came to going after renegade mining companies.

The editorial pages of Western papers largely hailed Salazar’s nomination. The common theme portrayed Salazar as “an honest broker.” But broker of what? Mining claims and oil leases, most likely.

Less defensible were the dial-o-matic press releases faxed out by the mainstream groups, greenwashing Salazar’s dismal record. Here’s Carl Pope, CEO of the Sierra Club, who fine-tuned this kind of rhetorical airbrushing during the many traumas of the Clinton years:

“The Sierra Club is very pleased with the nomination of Ken Salazar to head the Interior Department. As a Westerner and a rancher, he understands the value of our public lands, parks, and wildlife and has been a vocal critic of the Bush Administration’s reckless efforts to sell-off our public lands to Big Oil and other special interests. Senator Salazar has been a leader in protecting places like the Roan Plateau and he has stood up against the Bush’s administration’s dangerous rush to develop oil shale in Colorado and across the West.

“Senator Salazar has also been a leading voice in calling for the development of the West’s vast solar, wind, and geothermal resources. He will make sure that we create the good-paying green jobs that will fuel our economic recovery without harming the public lands he will be charged with protecting.”

Who knew that strip-mining for coal, an industry Salazar resolutely promoted, was a green job? Hold on tight, here we go once more down the rabbit hole.

The Sierra Club had thrown its organizational heft behind Mike Thompson, the hook-and-rifle Democratic congressman from northern California. Obama stiffed them and got away with it without enduring even a whimper of disappointment.

In the exhaust-stream, not far beyond Pope, came an organization (you can’t call them a group, since they don’t really have any members) called the Campaign for American Wilderness, lavishly endowed by the centrist Pew Charitable Trusts, to fete Salazar. According to Mike Matz, the Campaign’s executive director, Salazar “has been a strong proponent of protecting federal lands as wilderness…As a farmer, a rancher, and a conservationist, Sen. Salazar understands the importance of balancing traditional uses of our public lands with the need to protect them. His knowledge of land management issues in the West, coupled with his ability to work with diverse groups and coalitions to find common ground, will serve him well at the Department of the Interior.”

Whenever seasoned greens see the word “common ground” invoked as a solution for thorny land use issues in the Interior West it sets off an early warning alarm. “Common ground” is another flex-phrase like, “win-win” solution that indicates greens will be handed a few low-calorie crumbs while business will proceed to gorge as usual.

In Salazar’s case, these morsels have been a few measly wilderness areas inside non-contentious areas, such as Rocky Mountain National Park. Designating a wilderness inside a National Park is about as risky as placing the National Mall off-limits to oil drilling.

But Salazar’s green gifts haven’t come without a cost. In the calculus of common ground politics, trade-offs come with the territory. For example, Salazar, under intense pressure from Coloradoans, issued a tepid remonstrance against the Bush administration’s maniacal plan to open up the Roan Plateau in western Colorado to oil drilling. But he voted to authorize oil drilling off the coast of Florida, voted against increased fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks and voted against the repeal of tax breaks for Exxon-Mobil when the company was shattering records for quarterly profits.

On the very day that Salazar’s nomination was leaked to the press, the Inspector General for the Interior Department released a devastating report on the demolition of the Endangered Species Act under the Bush administration, largely at the hands of the disgraced Julie MacDonald, former Deputy Secretary of Interior for Fish and Wildlife. The IG report, written by Earl Devaney, detailed how MacDonald personally interfered with 13 different endangered species rulings, bullying agency scientists and rewriting biological opinions. “MacDonald injected herself personally and profoundly in a number of ESA decisions,” Devaney wrote in a letter to Oregon Senator Ron Wyden. “We determined that MacDonald’s management style was abrupt and abrasive, if not abusive, and that her conduct demoralized and frustrated her staff as well as her subordinate managers.”

What McDonald did covertly, Salazar attempted openly in the name of, yes, common ground. Take the case of the white-tailed prairie dog, one of the declining species that MacDonald went to nefarious lengths to keep from enjoying the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Prairie dogs are viewed as pests by ranchers and their populations have been remorselessly targeted for elimination on rangelands across the Interior West.

Ken Salazar, former rancher, once threatened to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service to keep the similarly imperiled black-tailed prairie dog off the endangered species list. As a US senator, Salazar also fiercely opposed efforts to inscribe stronger protections for endangered species in the 2008 Farm Bill.

“The Department of the Interior desperately needs a strong, forward looking, reform-minded Secretary,” says Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. “Unfortunately, Ken Salazar is not that man. He endorsed George Bush’s selection of Gale Norton as Secretary of Interior, the very woman who initiated and encouraged the scandals that have rocked the Department of the Interior. Virtually all of the misdeeds described in the Inspector General’s expose occurred during the tenure of the person Ken Salazar advocated for the position he is now seeking.”As a leading indicator of just how bad Salazar may turn out to be, an environmentalist need only bushwhack through the few remaining daily papers to the stock market pages, where energy speculators, cheered at the Salazar pick, drove up the share price of coal companies, such as Peabody, Massey Energy and Arch Coal. The battered S&P Coal index rose by three per cent on the day Obama introduced the coal-friendly Salazar as his choice to head Interior.

Say this much for Salazar: he’s not a Clinton retread. In fact, he makes Clinton Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt look like Ed Abbey.

As Hot Rod Blajogevich demonstrated in his earthy vernacular, politics is a pay-to-play sport. Like Ken Salazar, Barack Obama’s political underwriters included oil-and-gas companies, utilities, financial houses, agribusiness giants, such as Archer Daniels Midlands, and coal companies. These bundled campaign contributions dwarfed the money given to Obama by environmentalists, many of whom backed Hillary in the Democratic Party primaries.

Environmentalists made no demands of Obama during the election and sat silently as he promoted off-shore oil drilling, pledged to build new nuclear plants and sang the virtues of the oxymoron known as clean-coal technology. Obama probably felt he owed them no favors. And he gave them none. The environmental establishment cheered never-the-less.

* * *

Of all of Barack Obama’s airy platitudes about change, none were more vaporous than his platitudes about the environment and within that category Obama has had little at all to say about matters concerning public lands and endangered species.

As Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar wasted no time in turning the department into a hive of his homeboys. This group of lawyers and former colleagues earned the nickname the Colorado Mafia, Version Three. It’s Version Three because Colorado Mafia Version One belonged to James Watt (a Colorado transplant) and his Loot-the-West zealots from the Mountain States Legal Fund. The Version Two update came in the form of Gale Norton and her own band of fanatics, some of whom remain embedded in the Department’s HQ, just down the hall from Salazar’s office.

Beyond a perverse obsession with Stetson hats, Salazar and Watt share some eerie resemblances. For starters, they look alike. There’s a certain fleshy smugness to their facial features. Who knows if Salazar shares Watt’s apocalyptic eschatology (Why save nature, Watt once quipped, when the end of the world is nigh.), but both men are arrogant, my-way-or-the-highway types. Watt’s insolent demeanor put him to the right even of his patron Ronald Reagan and ultimately proved his downfall. (Salazar may well meet the same fate.) Most troubling, however, is the fact that both Watt and Salazar hold similar views on the purpose of the public estate, treating the national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands not as ecosystems but as living warehouses for the manufacture of stuff: lumber, paper, wedding rings, meat, energy.

With this stark profile in mind, it probably came as no big shock that the man Salazar nominated to head the Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency charged with protecting native wildlife and enforcing the Endangered Species Act, viewed those responsibilities with indifference if not hostility. For the previous twelve years, Sam Hamilton ran the Southeast Region of the Fish and Wildlife Service, a swath of the country that has the dubious distinction of driving more species of wildlife to the brink of extinction than any other.

From Florida to Louisiana, the encroaching threats on native wildlife are manifest and relentless: chemical pollution, oil drilling, coastal development, clearcutting, wetland destruction and a political animus toward environmental laws (and environmentalists). And Sam Hamilton was not one to stand up against this grim state of affairs.

A detailed examination of Hamilton’s tenure by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility revealed his bleak record. During the period from 2004 through 2006, Hamilton’s office performed 5,974 consultations on development projects (clearcuts, oil wells, golf courses, roads, housing developments and the like) in endangered species habitat. But Hamilton gave the green light to all of these projects, except one. By contrast, during the same period the Rocky Mountain Office of the Fish and Wildlife Service officially consulted on 586 planned projects and issued 100 objections or so-called jeopardy opinions. Hamilton has by far the weakest record of any of his colleagues on endangered species protection.

There’s plenty of evidence to show that Hamilton routinely placed political considerations ahead of enforcing the wildlife protection laws. For example, in the agency’s Vero Beach, Florida office Fish and Wildlife Service biologists wrote a joint letter in 2005 complaining that their supervisors had ordered them not to object to any project in endangered species habitat—no matter how ruinous.

Take the case of the highly endangered Florida panther. One of Hamilton’s top lieutenants in Florida has been quoted as telling his subordinates that the big cat was a “zoo species” doomed to extinction and that to halt any developments projects in the panther’s habitat would be a waste of time and political capital.

“Under Sam Hamilton, the Endangered Species Act has become a dead letter,” says PEER’s Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the White House announcement on Hamilton touted his “innovative conservation” work. “Apparently, the word ‘no’ is not part of ‘innovative’ in Mr. Hamilton’s lexicon. To end the cycle of Endangered Species Act lawsuits, the Fish and Wildlife Service needs a director who is willing to follow the law and actually implement the Act. Hamilton’s record suggests that he will extend the policies of Bush era rather than bring needed change.”

Obama and Salazar put the fate of the jaguar, grizzly and northern spotted owl in his compromised hands. Feel the chill?

Over at the Agriculture Department Obama made a similarly cynical pick when he chose former Iowa governor Tom Vilsak to head the agency that oversees the national forests. Vilsak resides to the right of Salazar and not just in the sitting arrangement at Cabinet meetings. He is a post-Harken Iowa Democrat, which means he’s essentially a Republican who believes in evolution six days a week. (He leaves such Midwestern heresies at the door on Sundays.) Think Earl Butz—minus the racist sense of humor (as far as we know).

Vilsak is a creature of industrial agriculture, a brusque advocate for the corporate titans that have lain waste to the farm belt: Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill. As administrations come and go, these companies only tighten their stranglehold, poisoning the prairies, spreading their clones and frankencrops, sucking up the Oglalla aquifer, scalping topsoil and driving the small farmers under. It could have been different. Obama might have opted for change by selecting Wes Jackson of the Land Institute, food historian Michael Pollan or Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union. Instead he tapped the old guard, a man with a test tube in one hand and Stihl chainsaw in the other.

Through a quirk of bureaucratic categorization, the Department of Agriculture is also in charge of the national forests. At 190 million acres, the national forests constitute the largest block of public lands and serve as the principal reservoir of biotic diversity and wilderness on the continent. They have also been under a near constant state of siege since the Reagan era: from clearcuts, mining operations, ORV morons, ski resorts and cattle and sheep grazing.

Since 1910, when public outrage erupted after President William Taft fired Gifford Pinchot for speaking out against the corrupt policies of Interior Secretary Richard Ballinger, the chief of the Forest Service had been treated as a civil service employee and, much like the director of the FBI and CIA, was considered immune from changes in presidential administrations. This all changed when Bill Clinton imperiously dismissed Dale Robertson as chief in 1994 and replaced him with Jack Ward Thomas, the former wildlife biologist who drafted Clinton’s plan to resume logging in the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest. Thomas’ tenure at the agency proved disastrous for the environment. In eight years of Clinton time, the Forest Service cut six times as much timber as the agency did under the Reagan and Bush I administrations combined. The pace of logging set by Thomas continued unabated during the Bush the Younger’s administration.

So Vilsak soon gave the boot to Gail Kimbell, Bush’s compliant chief, and replaced her with a 32-year veteran of the agency named Tom Tidwell. Those were 32 of the darkest years in the Forest Service’s long history, years darkened by a perpetual blizzard of sawdust. You will search Google in vain for any evidence that during the forest-banging years of the Bush administration, when Tidwell served as Regional Forester for the Northern Rockies, this man ever once stood up to Kimbell or her puppetmaster Mark Rey, who went from being the timber industry’s top lobbyist to Bush’s Undersecretary of Agriculture in charge of the national forests. No, Tidwell was no whistleblower. He was, in fact, a facilitator of forest destruction, eagerly implementing the Kimbell-Rey agenda to push clearcuts, mines, oil wells and roads into the heart of the big wild of Montana and Idaho.

Despite this dismal resumé, Tidwell’s appointment received near unanimous plaudits, from timber companies, ORV user groups, mining firms and, yes, the Wilderness Society. Here’s the assessment of Cliff Roady director the Montana Forest Products Association, a timber industry lobby outfit: “His appointment keeps things on a fairly steady course. He reported to Gail Kimbell, and they worked together really well. He’s somebody we’d look forward to working with.”

And here, singing harmony, were the tweets of Bob Eckey, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society, which some seasoned observers of environmental politics consider to be yet another timber industry lobby group: “Tidwell understands the American public’s vision for a national forest has been changing.”

During his tenure in Montana, Tidwell specialized in the art of coercive collaboration, a social manipulation technique that involves getting environmental groups to endorse destructive projects they would normally litigate to stop. Yet, when copiously lubricated with the magic words “collaboration” or “climate change” most environmentalists can be enticed to swallow even the most ghastly of clearcuts in the most ecologically sensitive sites, such as the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana to the fast-dwindling ponderosa pine forests of Oregon’s Blue Mountains.

One of Tidwell’s highest priorities is turn the national forests into industrial biomass farms, all in the name of green energy. Under this destructive scheme, forests, young and old alike, will be clearcut, not for lumber, but as fuel to be burned in biomass power generators. Already officials in the big timber states of Oregon and Washington are crowing that they will soon be able to become the “Saudi Arabia” of biomass production. Did they run this past Smokey the Bear?

Of course, Smokey, that global icon of wildfire suppression, and Tidwell found common ground on another ecological dubious project: thinning and post-fire salvage logging. We’ve reached the point where old-fashioned timber sales are a thing of the past. Now every logging operation comes with an ecological justification — specious though they all certainly turn out to be.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies, one of the few green outfits to consistently stand up against Democratic Party-sponsored depredations on the environment, sued Tidwell at least 20 times during his time as regional forester in Missoula. There’s no record of Tidwell being sued even once by Boise-Cascade, Plum Creek Timber or the Noranda Gold Mining Company.

Yet by and large, the mainstream environmental movement muzzled itself while the Obama administration stocked the Interior Department with corporate lawyers, extraction-minded bureaucrats and Clinton-era retreads. This strategy of a self-imposed gag order only served to enable Salazar and Vilsak to pursue even more rapacious schemes without any fear of accountability.

The pattern of political conditioning has been honed to perfection. Every few weeks the Obama administration drops the Beltway Greens a few meaningless crumbs–such as the reinstitution of the Clinton Roadless Area rule–, which greedily gobble them up one after the other until, like Hansel and Gretel with groupthink, they find themselves hopelessly lost in a vast maze of Obama-sanctioned clearcuts. After that, they won’t even get a crumb.

On the environment, the transition between Bush and Obama was disturbingly smooth when it should have been decisively abrupt.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net and trolled on Twitter @JSCCounterPunch. Joshua Frank is managing editor of CounterPunch. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can follow him on Twitter @joshua__frank.