The Battle for the Roan Plateau

“He could cancel the Roan leases tomorrow,” says Mike Freeman, an attorney representing environmental groups and sportsmen who are suing to stop drilling on the Roan. “He has that authority. But so far, their position has been the same as the last administration’s.”

The oil and gas industry would raise holy hell, of course, and probably mount a nasty legal fight. But canceling the leases would have ripple effects far beyond this corner of Colorado. It would mark a decisive break from the drill-where-you-please ethos of not just the Bush administration, but every administration since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. “The Roan Plateau is very symbolic,” says Suzanne Jones, Central Rockies regional director of the Wilderness Society. “It may be a small place, but it has big ramifications.”

One of the biggest ramifications is what it will tell us about Ken Salazar. Will he — and by extension, his boss — have the [strength] to face down the energy and extraction lobbies and their cronies?

“He’s looking to enact a 21st-century version of what was done by great leaders like Teddy Roosevelt, who created the National Forest System, and JFK with the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” asserts Tom Strickland, Salazar’s right-hand man and assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. But to enact such a bold vision, he’ll have to risk getting bloodied.

… Salazar, by contrast, came in speaking softly. “He’s savvy enough and middle-of-the-road enough to pull it off,” says Jim Baca, who was Babbitt’s BLM chief (until Baca got fired 16 months in). “I think he’s shown more courage than any Interior secretary in recent memory. And he is one guy who is not afraid of the Senate — maybe because he was in the Senate.”