Obama May Tap a Strong Progressive to Manage Our Wilderness
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Anyone who has visited a national park or traversed the country's diverse wilderness comes home with gorgeous, yet distressing images of it; those returning from a visit to one of the more than 562 tribes the federal government recognizes and is supposed to assist also bring back sad stories about it; and those of us who enjoy camping or fishing or hunting inevitably return home talking about it. "It" is the scenery and life found on the millions of acres of federal land left blemished and vulnerable by the Bush administration's Department of the Interior.
As urbanization, economic restructuring and the insatiable lust for land and natural resources continue to threaten the still-astonishingly beautiful and rich land of this country, we should all care about whom President-elect Barack Obama chooses to lead the DOI. The urgency of these issues came home twice this week as the Bush administration delivered two parting gifts to big mining interests by rescinding two important regulations -- one requiring the DOI to prevent mining companies from dumping waste near public streams, and another protecting federal land near the Grand Canyon from mining and oil and gas development.
In order to deal with such challenges to the land and people under the purview of the department, which is charged with managing most federally owned land as well as with managing relationships with Native American peoples, the Obama administration must appoint someone with the experience, expertise and political sophistication to lead nothing less than a New Deal for the land and people our government deals with.
Of all the candidates being vetted by the Obama transition team for this complex and challenging responsibility, none can match the unique qualifications of Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. Grijalva, who was the leading voice denouncing this week's most recent giveaway to mining companies by the Bush administration, will bring urgently needed balance and poise to a federal land management bureaucracy that has pushed we the people into dangerous disequilibrium with the land we live on -- and love. Appointing Grijalva, who was elected co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, will also bring much-needed political balance to the Obama cabinet than some of the Republican-lite Democrats also being considered for the DOI post, like California Blue Dog Democrat Mike Thompson.
Like almost all of the previous secretaries of the interior, Grijalva hails from the West, more specifically Arizona, where his 7th Congressional District seat has provided him with the kind of experience and leadership we will need in a DOI secretary.
Grijalva's willingness to reverse the values and practices instituted by the Bush administration's Department of the Interior are well-illustrated by his leadership of the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee of the 110th Congress. Most recently, he spearheaded efforts to stop the planned re-mining of the Black Mesa, in northern Arizona.
In a recent letter to current DOI Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, Grijalva called on the Bush administration to restore some semblance of the natural balance between the diverse interests DOI must manage: "Mining at Black Mesa has caused springs on Hopi lands to dry up and jeopardized the sole source of drinking water for many Hopis and Navajos.
This same will to balance informs the National Landscape Conservation System, and the Environment Congressional Task Force Co-Chairman Grijalva's efforts to craft urgently needed legislation to reform the very outdated General Mining Law of 1872. Environmentalists, scientists and other advocates believe this law must be changed if the wilderness of the West and of our national parks, forests and public lands systems are to return to sustainability. Such actions have secured very strong support for Grijalva's DOI bid from environmental, scientific and other groups, including the National Conservation Association, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees and the U.S. Humane Society, to name a few. A letter to President-elect Obama in support of Grijalva was signed by more than 50 prominent scholars specializing in biology, conservation and other disciplines. In the letter, the scholars called him a "broad thinker" and praised the congressman's "Report on the Bush Administration Assault on Our National Parks, Forests and Public Lands" as the work of "someone who understands and values science."
No less effusive are the statements of support Grijalva is receiving from Native American leaders like Ned Norris, who as tribal chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation -- one of seven tribes in Grijalva's district -- says he has "enjoyed an extensive and extremely positive relationship with the congressman for many years." Asked what appeals most to tribes like his about a possibility of a Grijalva-led DOI, Norris answered, "He has a deep understanding of and respect for relationship between tribes and U.S. government." Norris also pointed to Grijalva's sophistication and success in settling a 30-year-old water and resource dispute between the Tohono O'odham tribe and the federal government.
In his efforts to foster change and hope with regard to both the stewardship of federal land and the management of relations with Indian nations, Obama will bring urgency and much-needed balance to these important government functions by appointing Grijalva as secretary of the interior.