Shortly after his confirmation, Secretary Ken Salazar declared that there’s a "new sheriff in town" at the Department of Interior. If there was one part of the swamp that is DC that needed draining, it was DOI, what with the sex and drugs scandal at MMS and many of former Secretary Gale Norton’s cronies sentenced to time in prison.
In addition to cleaning up that mess, the new sheriff – formerly Colorado’s Attorney General – has also talked and acted tough about a Utah college student named Tim DeChristopher.
DeChristopher, you may recall, wandered into a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease sale in Salt Lake City late last year, and began bidding – and winning – leases he never had any intention (or means) of buying. His goal was to stop a last-minute Bush Administration give-away of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat and other sensitive lands near Arches and other national parks. That goal was achieved after conservation groups (represented by Earthjustice) won an injunction in federal court in DC. Salazar then stepped up, voiding the leases and vowing to right the Bushies’ legal wrongs. [UPDATE – I neglected to mention that lawyers at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and NRDC help win that injunction. Kudos for their hard work too.]
Now, Salazar – who DeChristopher lauded for nixing the leases – is working to put DeChristopher behind bars, saying his department "will not tolerate future conduct which undermines the integrity of the bid process."
DeChristopher probably broke the law – he’s all but admitted that he went in with no intention of actually buying the leases though he signed a statement that he did. And while some have expressed disappointment with DeChristopher’s indictment, for Salazar it’s a move that displays his even-handed law-and-order credentials. It also has the incidental benefit of mollifying the oil and gas apologists who’ve been howling for DeChristopher’s head.
One hopes that Salazar will show the same toughness, the same law-and-order streak, with respect to not only those who claim to be motivated by environmental protection, but also with those who seek to undermine the environment.
A few hours drive south from Salt Lake, the governmental machinery of Kane County has been used for years in a systematic effort to undo Interior Department rules meant to protect wildlife, streams, wilderness and archeological sites within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
In 2003, county employees and elected official ripped out federal "road closed" signs and in 2005 posted county signs welcoming destructive dirt bike and ATV use in areas closed to protect the Monument’s resources. They like to talk tough too. After losing another recent court battle against the Monument, one of their allies called Monument managers part of the "faceless, nameless, unaccountable bureaucracy in Washington, D.C., who thinks they can hold sway over a sovereign state."
Rather than punishing Kane County, the Bush administration responded limply, sending stern letters while sitting down with county officials to "resolve" the issue. The county signs only came down after The Wilderness Society and SUWA, represented by Earthjustice, won a court order last year forcing the county to do so.
Let’s hope Secretary Salazar will be an even-handed sheriff, and be as tough on Kane County as he is on Tim DeChristopher.
Part of the reason Kane County has pushed around BLM for so long is that few at the agency have had the guts to stand up to the county. Folks who break the law to undermine environmental protection deserve to have the book thrown at them. If the new sheriff "will not tolerate" undermining "the integrity of the bid process," one hopes he will show just as much passion for the integrity of wildlands, streams and wildlife habitat in one of America’s grandest national monuments.
How about it, Mr. Secretary?