Former New Mexico congressman, Interior chief Manuel Luján Jr. dies at 90


Manuel Luján Jr., a former 10-term Republican congressman from New Mexico who also served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, died Thursday in Albuquerque at the age of 90.

His wife, Jean Luján, told The Washington Post that the cause of death was congestive heart failure. Luján was known to have heart issues and underwent triple-bypass surgery after a heart attack in 1986.

{mosads}During his 1969-1989 term in the House, Luján, who represented a Democratic-leaning district in northern New Mexico, emphasized regional priorities over national legislation.

“If I’m remembered for anything, I’d rather be remembered for constituent service than national legislation,” he once said. 

President George H.W. Bush later tapped him for his Cabinet. While at the Interior Department, Luján drew the ire of environmentalists for criticizing the Endangered Species Act as too harsh on regional economies. He said federal protections for the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest would cost 31,000 timber jobs and implemented an exemption to allow logging to continue.

“No solution to this problem could be found short of this action,” he said at the time.

He also drew criticism after he shrugged off protections for the Mount Graham red squirrel in Arizona.

“Do we have to save every subspecies?” he said. “Nobody’s told me the difference between a red squirrel, a black one or a brown one.”

Luján remained in the Cabinet until the end of Bush’s term in 1993. Just minutes before the president left office, Luján attempted to transfer federal land in the Southern California desert that he and then-California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) wanted for a nuclear waste dump.

Bruce Babbitt, Luján’s successor, rescinded the order, and courts ultimately determined that Luján acted improperly. 

However, Luján also took the lead in protecting thousands of prehistoric and historic petroglyphs by helping create Petroglyphs National Monument west of Albuquerque. Upon entering the private sector, Luján lobbied for a development company that owned land filled with petroglyphs.

Luján is survived by his wife and three children, two brothers, a sister and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Another son died in 2014. 

CORRECTION: Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), a Senate candidate in New Mexico, is not the cousin of Luján. A previous version of this story included incorrect information. 

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