Phoenix — The possibility that President-elect Barack Obama will select Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona) as his secretary of interior has environmentalists, Interior Dept. employees, Native Americans and Latino groups giddy.
If appointed and confirmed by the Senate, the three-term Democrat, who represents the state’s 7th Congressional District, is expected to launch widespread reforms at Interior, which has been riddled with scandal, plummeting employee morale and deteriorating conditions in the nation’s national parks.
“He’s ramped up and ready to go,” said Travis Longcore, science director of the Los Angeles-based Urban Wildlands Group and co-author of a Dec. 1 letter signed by 60 prominent conservation biologists and environmental scientists urging Obama to appoint Grijalva.
Natalie Luna, Grijalva’s spokeswoman, said Monday that the Obama transition team “has been looking at him,” but she could not say whether a final decision was near. Grijalva’s name first surfaced as a contender for the job more than two weeks ago.
The 61-year-old son of a migrant Mexican farm worker has been sharply critical of the Bush administration’s management of the 500 million acres controlled by Interior. If appointed, Grijalva would become the third Arizonan to lead the department. Stewart Udall served as its secretary under President John F. Kennedy, and former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt held the post under President Bill Clinton.
Grijalva, who was elected co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus last month, has a reputation for being politically combative. He has been extremely outspoken in his opposition to what he sees as the anti-labor and anti-immigration policies of congressional Republicans. He has taken shots at his own party, branding Democratic leaders “spineless” for failing to take on comprehensive immigration reform. And he’s called leaders of anti-amnesty groups “cockroaches.”
“The word extremist could get tossed around to describe Grijalva,” the Tucson Citizen noted in Nov. 28 commentary. “He compromises when he must but prefers conquest to consensus.”
Grijalva’s strident nature may cost him the Interior appointment. A Washington Post columnist wrote Tuesday that a source close to the Obama transition team said that Grijalva had fallen off the short list.
Grijalva’s claim to the Interior Dept. job rests in part on his aggressive attacks on the administration’s handling of the nation’s public lands and natural resources. In a 23-page summary of its policies released last month, he lambasted the administration for a “concerted strategy of reducing the protections for our public lands, parks and forests and opening up these lands for every type of private, commercial and extractive industry possible.”
Grijalva has also clashed with Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne on opening up more than 1 million acres adjacent to Grand Canyon National Park to uranium mining and considering a plan to reopen a massive coal strip mine on the Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations in northeast Arizona.
As chairman of the House subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands, Grijalva has criticized Interior’s tendency to put politics above science. “Under Bush, dedicated career employees have been driven out because they refused to comply with unethical activities, science has been manipulated to enrich industry, and environmental laws and regulations have been subverted to push forward damaging activities,” Grijalva wrote in the preface to his report, “The Bush Administration Assaults on our National Parks, Forests and Public Land (A Partial List).”
The Interior Dept. has a $16-billion budget and oversees the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Geological Survey, the Minerals Management Service, the Office of Surface Mining and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It raises $12 billion a year from the sale of natural resources, including oil, gas, minerals, timber, grazing leases and other federal land development.
Grijalva’s main competition for the job is Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who is strongly backed by hunter and fishermen groups. What’s more, Obama told Field and Stream magazine before the election “that having a head of the Department of Interior who doesn’t understand hunting and fishing would be a problem” and that “whoever heads up” the agency “is probably going to be a sportsman or sportswoman.”
Scientists who support Grijalva are urging Obama to look beyond that narrow requirment to the broad array of environmental challenges that Interior must address, including implementing reforms to manage climate change.
“We believe [it] is far more important to have a secretary who understands ecosystem science and is committed to science-based decision making,” urges the Dec. 1 letter signed by scientists. Among the signers are Michael E. Soule, founder of the Society for Conservation Biology; Cole Crocker-Bedford, retired chief of natural resources and research at Grand Canyon National Park; and Philip Hedrick, professor of conservation biology at Arizona State University.
Grijalva also has the backing of more than 130 local and regional environmental groups across the country, including the Grand Canyon Trust, Southern Utah Wilderness Society and the Center for Biological Diversity. A letter of support signed by the groups’ leaders was released Monday by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington advocacy group dedicated to exposing political manipulation of science.
National environmental groups are reportedly lobbying on Grijalva’s behalf too, but most have not publicly endorsed a candidate for the top job at Interior. Grijalva has been endorsed by Friends of the Earth and the National Conservation and Parks Assn.
Daniel Patterson, southwest director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said many Interior employees support Grijalva because he is seen as a leader who “will first and foremost restore the focus to serving the public interest and not just big industry.” He said employee morale at the department is extremely low in the wake of an oil-sex scandal that rocked the Mineral Managements Agency in September. “Many of the employees feel like they have completely lost their ability to serve the public interest,” Patterson said.
Latino groups, including the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, told Obama’s transition team leaders last week that Grijalva had their “100 percent support,” according to a Dec. 4 report in the Arizona Daily Star. And some Native American leaders, who work closely with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in managing tribal lands, have lined up behind Grijalva.
Vernon Masayesva, a former Hopi Tribal chairman and executive director of the Black Mesa Trust, a coalition opposed to coal mining on the Hopi and Navajo Indian reservations, said, “We are just praying that Grijalva will be the next secretary.”
Update: The original version of this story said that the 60 prominent conservation biologists and environmental scientists urging Obama to appoint Grijalva were all from the Interior Dept. They are not all Interior Dept. biologists. We regret the error.