Salazar: No ‘secret agenda’ at Interior Department on land protection

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Wednesday vowed to work with Congress on conservation, denying accusations by western Republicans of a “secret” Interior plan to designate vast tracts of land as national monuments through executive branch power.

“There’s no secret agenda,” Salazar told reporters. “We are getting the best ideas in terms of how we protect the public lands of America and how we work with local communities, the states, members of Congress.”

Salazar indicated that land protection decisions will go through Capitol Hill.

“In essence, where we will probably end up is having another public lands bill like the one that President Obama signed in the early days of his administration,” Salazar said. “That really is a coming together, a very bipartisan effort, where it is a bottom-up approach to conservation.”

He declined to flatly rule out any executive branch designations, however, but noted that Interior’s preferred option is to work with Congress and local stakeholders.

Salazar’s remarks followed his appearance at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing about Interior’s fiscal year 2011 budget proposal.

An Interior memo that leaked last month listed 14 potential national monuments in nine western states, prompting anger from lawmakers including several members of Utah’s delegation. The fear a repeat of then-President Clinton’s 1996 designation of the 1.9 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce shares their concern that new monument designations that could prevent oil-and-gas drilling and other activities in large regions.

But Interior officials called the leaked memo a preliminary draft that was the result of “brainstorming” sessions, and said that no decisions have been made.