Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr., displaying a lack of knowledge about matters central to his department, incorrectly insisted Wednesday that the government was being compensated with mineral royalties for the public lands it sells for just $2.50 an acre.
In a fireside session with reporters in his massive Cabinet office, Lujan also made clear that he does not understand regulations governing leasing for coal mining and other purposes.
When corrected about the bargain-priced land sales, the nation’s chief steward of public lands, who has been in office since early February, expressed amazement. “We don’t get any royalties?” Lujan asked. “We don’t get any money?
“Strike whatever I might have said about all that,” he urged a small group of reporters. “I didn’t know what I was talking about.”
An exasperated Lujan aide said later: “I don’t know what happened to him. Write what you have to write.”
The extraordinary exchange came amid increasing criticism of Lujan from conservationists and some Administration officials, who have questioned the 60-year-old former congressman’s ability to manage the Interior Department. Some have suggested that he is neither knowledgeable nor aggressive enough to represent the vast agency’s interests.
“He obviously is not substantive on the issues,” said Robert Sulnic, director of the Los Angeles-based American Oceans Campaign. “These decisions are obviously going to be made in the White House.”
No ‘Sense of Promise’
Lujan’s performance to date, said George Frampton Jr., president of the Wilderness Society, “doesn’t give one a sense of promise for real stewardship in the next four years.”
While Lujan served for more than 20 years on the House Interior Committee, he was known principally for his skill in addressing the concerns of his New Mexico constituents. He compiled a voting record showing little support for environmental concerns and his critics in the environmental community say that they have seen no evidence that those views have changed.
One prominent conservationist, who participated in a recent private meeting with Lujan, said that the group was aghast to hear the secretary say he tended to think of land administered by the Bureau of Land Management as “a place with a lot of grass for cows.”
Even those who share some of Lujan’s views have voiced concern about his style. In his confirmation hearing before the Senate, for example, Lujan answered questions so tentatively that Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) expressed hope that he would not become a “patsy” for the White House Office of Management and Budget.
In that hearing, Lujan spelled out the word “stewardship” and said “ ‘s’ is for stewardship,” “ ‘t’ is for territories,” “ ‘e’ is for education,” “ ‘w’ is for war on drugs” and so on.
“I don’t intend to be a shrinking violet,” Lujan pledged then.
Aides Join Criticism
Since, some aides to President Bush have joined privately in the criticism of the Interior secretary. One former adviser, asked to assess the performance of Bush Cabinet members so far, simply laughed when he got to Lujan’s name. Current Bush aides have been disparaging toward Lujan in conversations with reporters, citing his lack of initiative.
In Wednesday’s session, Lujan bounced some of the criticism for his department’s inaction back at the White House, voicing frustration with the slow pace at which Interior posts had been filled and a task force on offshore drilling had been created. Asked whether he was blaming the President, Lujan said facetiously: “Not George Bush, by no stretch of the imagination.”
A top aide to Lujan, Steve Goldstein, insisted after Wednesday’s session that the secretary knows the issues well but simply had gone into the meeting unprepared.
“Everybody’s human,” he said. “And everybody has a bad day. . . . I think people will now know that they have a human secretary of the Interior.”
In Wednesday’s session with reporters, Lujan was asked about the practice, authorized by an 1872 mining law, of selling certain public lands for $2.50 an acre. Congress’ General Accounting Office, denouncing the practice, said less than two weeks ago that entrepreneurs paid the government less than $4,000 for patent rights to land estimated to be worth $48 million and then had resold some of the rights for vast profits.
Lujan said that he thinks the $2.50-an-acre fee is too low. But he contended that the cost to taxpayers is mitigated in part by the payment to the federal government of royalties for minerals extracted from the land.
In fact, those who hold patents on the land own the land outright and need pay the government nothing more than the initial $2.50 an acre.
So informed, Lujan said: “Well, then I’m going to slow down in answering the question if that’s the case.” He noted that a previous experiment in “developing as I’m talking” had resulted in controversy when it was reported that the Interior secretary, who has jurisdiction over San Francisco’s Presidio, wanted to use the former military base to house homeless people.
Such a plan, he said, was just one of the options he had said should be considered.
Lujan, however, persisted in asking reporters questions about mining law, making clear that he had confused the procedures governing the sale of land to private individuals with the lease of land for coal mining and other purposes.
“Do we just lease coal?” he asked. " . . . What kind of lands do we lease coal in?”
At another point in the session, Lujan defended the indirect subsidies that the government pays to ranchers and miners by asserting that the government “subsidizes the guy that goes out hiking because we don’t charge him any fees for enjoying the beauty.”
He was reminded that the government now charges entrance fees at most national parks.