Barack Obama introduces his pick for Agriculture Secretary, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, left, and for Interior Secretary, Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., Wednesday in Chicago.

Greens mixed on Obama's Interior, Agriculture picks

Barack Obama announced two more cabinet picks Wednesday – former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack for Agriculture secretary and Colorado Senator Ken Salazar for Interior secretary – drawing both praise and criticism from environmental groups.

Barack Obama announced two more cabinet picks Wednesday – former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack for Agriculture secretary and Colorado Senator Ken Salazar for Interior secretary – drawing both praise and criticism from environmental groups.

“It’s time for a new kind of leadership in Washington that’s committed to using our lands in a responsible way to benefit all our families,” said the president-elect. “That is the kind of leadership embodied by Ken Salazar and Tom Vilsack.”

Both departments play a central role in setting the Obama administration's environmental policies. The Department of Agriculture regulates a host of issues, from organic labeling to pesticides to biofuels, that are dear to greens.

The Department of the Interior, which leases drilling on federal lands and enforces the Endangered Species Act, among many other things, has been rocked by scandal in recent months. In September, a report by the agency's Inspector General uncovered "a culture of ethical failure" in the Minerals Management Service, which included graft, drug use, and sexual misconduct with "[energy] industry contacts." And another report released this week found pervasive political interference in endangered species decisions.

Tom Vilsack

Mr. Vilsack has been praised by environmentalists for his ambitious call for increased domestic production of renewable energy. Here's what the Sierra Club had to say about his nomination:

"Governor Vilsack can play an important role in helping to bring about the clean energy economy in a way that benefits both farmers and rural communities and our environment. The USDA can take the lead in moving us past the corn-based ethanol of today toward the next-generation biofuels of tomorrow. These next-generation biofuels will not just provide farmers with new sources of income and help us break our dangerous dependence on oil, but they will also help President-Elect Obama achieve his ambitious plans to tackle global warming."

He was also praised by the League of Conservation Voters, who called him a "a powerful ally not only to America’s farmers, but to all who would protect our National Forests."

Other groups claim that the former Iowa governor, who in 2001 was named Governor of the Year by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, is far too friendly to Big Ag. The 850,000-member Organic Consumers Association's chief, Ronnie Cummins, called Obama's pick a sign of "the continuation of agribusiness as usual, the failed policies of chemical- and energy-intensive, genetically engineered industrial agriculture."

"Americans were promised ‘change,’ not just another shill for Monsanto and corporate agribusiness. Considering the challenges we collectively face as a nation, from climate change and rising energy costs to food insecurity, we need an administration that moves beyond ‘business as usual’ to fundamental change—before it’s too late.”

Perhaps the most telling quote about Vilsack comes from the Monsanto Company, as quoted in the Des Moines Register [via Grist]:

"He has a very balanced view of agriculture and understands its potential."
- Ted Crosbie, vice president of global plant breeding and director of Monsanto's Iowa operations

Ken Salazar

Obama's pick for Interior secretary was praised by the National Audubon Society (whose chair, Carol Browner, has been tapped as the administration's energy czar). In a press release sent out Wednesday afternoon, Audubon board member Peggy Montaño praised the Colorado Democrat:

"Ken Salazar is an outstanding choice for Secretary of the Interior. In the thirty years I have known Ken I have witnessed his deep respect for the land and water resources of our country. He understands very clearly the challenges facing us in the use and protection of our public lands. He will be an excellent leader of the agency."

The National Wildlife Federation also had good things to say about Obama's choice. Here's the group's president, Larry Schweiger:

“Sen. Ken Salazar has been a champion for America’s public lands. He’s fought to protect Western lands from costly, destructive oil shale production. He also took on the Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management over oil and gas leasing on the Roan Plateau in northwest Colorado. And as a former water rights and mining lawyer and former director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, Sen. Salazar brings an experienced perspective to needed mining reform."

Salazar's selection also drew praise from the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters.

But, as Grist's Kate Sheppard reports, many smaller conservation groups in the West are not so thrilled. Ms. Sheppard cites a press release from the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, which calls Salazar "a disappointing choice."

"The Department of the Interior desperately needs a strong, forward looking, reform-minded Secretary," said 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 yesterday's Inspector General expose occurred during the tenure of the person Ken Salazar advocated for the position he is now seeking."

The group notes that the Colorado senator voted against increased fuel efficiency standards, offshore drilling restrictions along Florida's coast, the repeal of tax breaks for Exxon-Mobil, and has fought efforts to increase protection for endangered species and the environment in the 2008 Farm Bill.

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