WASHINGTON – A former top aide to then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is at the center of a controversy over a suspended federal water-conservation program. Rebecca R. Wodder, a senior advisor to the Interior Secretary on rivers, declined to appear before the House Natural Resources Committee Wednesday afternoon.
As the hearing began, a white placard bearing Wodder’s name in black type was placed at the eastern end of a mahogany table and in front of an empty chair.
“Unfortunately, the Department will be unable to send a witness to the hearing,” committee spokeswoman Mallory Micetich said an Interior Department official told the committee.
In an email interview, Interior Department spokeswoman Jessica Kerhaw did not explain the reason for Wodder’s decision to decline to testify in front of the congressional panel.
Earlier Wednesday, Interior Secretary Sally Jewel announced a “pause” for the National Blueways program, acknowledging criticisms of the 14-month-old initiative as an effort to restrict water and land rights.
In lieu of a response, Kerhsaw referred to a statement the agency provided to the committee. The statement praised the National Blueways program for “recognizing and supporting … locally-led efforts to sustain the economic, recreational, and natural values of rivers and watersheds of national significance.”
Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Cortez) a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, suggested Wodder’s decision was similar to that of embattled IRS official Lois Lerner’s not to testify to Congress in May.
“A pattern is developing where even agency officials won’t defend the administration’s bad policies. Their silence speaks volumes,” Tipton said in an email interview.
At issue is Wodders’ role in the creation of the Blueways program, which Salazar announced in May 2012.
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) the chairman of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on water and power, said Wodders had created the Blueways program when she was the head of a “leftist organization,” American Rivers, a nonprofit based in Washington.
House Natural Resources committee staff pointed to a white paper American Rivers released in 2010 that called for the creation of a Blueways program.
“The Obama administration should establish a National Blueways Initiative using existing authority granted to the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture under the Northern Trails System,” the paper said, referring to legislation. Wodder was the CEO of American Rivers at the time.
Wodder is no stranger to controversy.
In July 2011, President Obama nominated Wodder for the post of assistant secretary in the Department of Interior for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. But her bid ran into resistance. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) blocked her nomination for her position on federal regulations for hydraulic fracturing. In January 2012, the Interior Department announced Wodder’s nomination had been withdrawn.
Ken Salazar had no comment about Jewell’s decision to suspend the program, his legal secretary Liz Watson said. He had been Secretary of the Department of the Interior from January 2009 until this April.