Interior Secretary Salazar to Take Land Conservation Initiative Nationwide – January 09

Interior Secretary Salazar to Take Land Conservation Initiative Nationwide
by Joe Hanel

Herald Denver Bureau
Article Last Updated; Thursday, January 29, 2009

DENVER – Interior Secretary Ken Salazar wants to invigorate a national land conservation program based on a successful Colorado organization.
In his first briefing for reporters as head of the Department of the Interior, the former Colorado senator said he wants to revamp the royalty system for federal gas and oil leases and use some of the money to preserve farms, ranches and rivers. 
His inspiration is Great Outdoors Colorado, he said. The organization has helped preserve 700,000 acres statewide since 1994, GOCO spokeswoman Chris Leding said.

Salazar helped write the 1992 constitutional amendment that created GOCO, and he was the group’s first chairman.

“He has not talked to anybody at GOCO about this, but he certainly knows the GOCO model,” Leding said.

The group uses lottery money to buy open space and conservation easements, which pays farmers and ranchers to leave their property undeveloped.

Salazar also said he’s assembling a list of “midnight actions” by the Bush administration that he might freeze or reverse. A planned auction of gas leases Feb. 12 might be on that list, he said. The auction at first included several tracts on the west side of La Plata County, but the Bureau of Land Management withdrew most of those after protests.

Salazar also might overturn the Bush administration’s changes to endangered species rules and the commercial leasing of oil-shale lands, he said. However, his department has not settled on a list of Bush actions that will be frozen, he said.

Salazar intends to visit the Lakewood office of the Minerals Management Service today to announce ethics reforms. The office collects royalties that gas and oil companies pay to the federal government. Several employees at the office were caught last year accepting gifts, alcohol and sex from gas and oil company employees.

Salazar vowed to change the culture at MMS and the Interior Department.

“The department has suffered from a neglect of ethics standards in the last administration,” Salazar said.

He’s also working on a plan to revamp the royalty program. He did not share details Wednesday, except to say he wants to devote some of the royalties to land conservation.

The federal government already operates the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which makes grants for open space and recreation around the nation. The program is authorized for a $900 million budget, but it has reached that level only twice in its four-decade history, according to the Trust for Public Lands.

Last year, the Land and Water Conservation Fund gave out $38 million in grants nationwide, but there are billions of dollars in unmet needs, according to its annual report.

Salazar hopes extra gas and oil royalty money would help the program replicate GOCO’s success on a national scale. He credited GOCO with preserving streamside habitat and working farms and ranches.