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Utah native Kathleen Clarke, the first woman to lead the Bureau of Land Management, resigned Thursday after a sometimes rocky four-year stint as director.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced Clarke's departure, calling the onetime head of Utah's Department of Natural Resources an effective leader who successfully guided the federal agency at a time when it was asked to expedite energy exploration and development - while also fulfilling its mission to maintain environmental safeguards and provide recreational opportunities.
"Our public lands, our forests and our landscapes are better off because of your service," Kempthorne said of Clarke in a statement.
Lynn Stevens, director of Utah's Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, says Clarke and her approach toward public land management will be missed.
"I think her philosophy of following the ideals of multiple use and a balanced approach toward management of the resources was refreshing and certainly fair to the public, the owners of the land," Stevens said.
But Clarke, who hails from Bountiful, also had no shortage of critics who maintain that the BLM's multiple-use mission has been badly skewered in favor of oil and gas interests during her tenure. The orders to accelerate energy development might have come down from the Bush administration, but a former BLM official says Clarke was only too happy to oblige.
"When she got there, the agency had found a nice rhythm, a balance between the use of resources and protecting resources," said Martha Hahn, associate director of the Grand Canyon Trust and a onetime Idaho state director. "But she didn't do anything to maintain that. In fact, she was a true believer in the policy that has created an imbalance that hindered the mission of the agency."
Clarke, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, also hit some rough patches while at BLM.
Clarke was investigated by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in 2003 for failing to recuse herself from discussing Utah-related issues, which she had agreed to do upon taking the BLM director's post to avoid conflicts of interest. Included were briefings on what became a scandal-plagued, and ultimately unsuccessful exchange of federal and state land in the San Rafael Swell. But Clarke was cleared of wrongdoing two years later.
Another ethics complaint was brought against Clarke last year over her alleged involvement in a dispute over grazing rights in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. But no findings have ever been released.
Clarke's old boss, former Rep. Jim Hansen, says such incidents owed more to political infighting than actual misdeeds. He calls Clarke a gutsy administrator who wasn't afraid of making enemies, and probably paid a price for it.
"Yes, she had some turbulent times, but so be it," said Hansen, who hired Clarke in 1987, the start of what became a seven-year stint in his office. "Nobody gets out of Washington without running into that. That's part of the deal."
Clarke also worked as an aide to the late Sen. Wallace F. Bennett. She replaced Ted Stewart as the state's Department of Natural Resources director in 1998.
Former BLM Director Patrick Shea, also a Utah resident, says Clarke was a capable manager, but an outsider who lacked vital backing above and below her in the agency and Interior Department.
"Kathleen's record at the Department of Natural Resources proved she could do a great job with support from Governor [Mike] Leavitt, but she didn't really get that with [former Interior Secretary] Gale Norton," said Shea, now a Salt Lake City attorney. "And, she had a Karl Rove in the White House who told the land managers what to say and when not to answer questions.
"I think she was in an untenable position from the very start."
Rumors of Clarke's departure had been circulating around the BLM for weeks. It is unclear how much of the decision to leave was hers - or if it was a case of Kempthorne looking to put his own stamp on the agency.
Hansen believes it is the former that drove the decision.
"Her kids are here. Her grandkids are here. I think she just wanted to come home," he said.
Stevens, the state's public lands policy director, says he is worried about Kempthorne's ability to find an adequate replacement for Clarke, with time running out on the Bush administration's calendar.
''Who are you going to find who's willing to go into a job where it's very possibly only going to be a two-year thing?'' he asked.
But conservation groups, who cheered Clarke's departure, hope the change signals a political shift by the Bush administration on the environment.
"This is an opportunity for the administration to move back toward the center and appoint someone who will take a longer-term view toward the management of our public lands," said Liz Thomas, an attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
A possible replacement for Clarke might be BLM Deputy Director Jim Hughes.
Hughes has been Clarke's deputy since 2002 and is respected among Republicans and Democrats. He also worked for the New Mexico congressional delegation, which could help win the approval of Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman.
* Reporter ROBERT GEHRKE contributed to this story.
Highlights of Kathleen Clarke's tenure as head of the Bureau of Land Management
* Clarke became the first female director of the BLM on Jan. 2, 2002.
* She was investigated for undue influence over appraisals as part of a failed federal- state land exchange involving the San Rafael Swell. She was cleared of any wrongdoing.
* Clarke presided over a huge increase in oil and gas exploration and drilling permits on federal lands in the West.