Promotion affects key player on Klamath
Former capital lawyer appointed Interior's
solicitor, cutting time Wooldridge has for salmon
By David Whitney -- Bee Washington Bureau
Published 2:15 am PDT Monday, June 14, 2004
WASHINGTON - For Klamath River fisheries
advocates fighting the Bush administration over
water flows for salmon, Sue Ellen Wooldridge has
been a calming influence as Interior Secretary
Gale Norton's top assistant.
"She is incredibly competent and capable," said
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who nonetheless
thinks the Bush administration's policies on the
Klamath River stink worse than the 30,000 rotting
salmon killed in a massive die-off nearly two
But just as the fight over the river's fishery
shows signs of heating up again, the former
Sacramento lawyer has been thrust into the middle
of another raging controversy that will mean less
time for the Klamath River battle.
While the Senate was away on its Memorial Day
recess, President Bush used his executive powers
to appoint her as the Interior Department's
solicitor, or top lawyer.
Wooldridge was nominated for the post in
January, and the Senate Energy and Natural
Resources Committee recommended her confirmation
in a unanimous vote.
But like a lot of nominations stalled in the
heated partisan politics of an election year, the
solicitor's seat sat vacant even though there is
no known opposition to Wooldridge.
The result is that Wooldridge's tenure in the
key legal spot could be short. Recess appointments
are governed by the Constitution and they expire
at the end of the next congressional session. That
means Wooldridge could be out of a job in late
2005 even if Bush is re-elected in November.
In a news release issued by Norton on June 1,
the Interior Department said the recess
appointment was intended to put Wooldridge on the
job immediately "while the U.S. Senate considers
But Bill Wicker, a spokesman for Democrats on
the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee,
said that with the president's action, the
Wooldridge nomination is most likely dead.
"It's unnecessary to confirm her because that
would be redundant," Wicker said. "It's
unfortunate for her that she ascended into her job
in the way she did."
But for the 43-year-old Harvard-trained lawyer
who grew up on a family farm seven miles north of
Willows in Glenn County, Wooldridge said she is
humbled by the Bush administration's support.
Her farm background has given Wooldridge a
blunt, earthy manner that impresses those who work
closely with her but which she says can get her in
Shortly after joining the Interior Department
as a top aide to Norton, Wooldridge met with an
assembly of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
workers. In an effort to dispel the notion that
the White House was appointing only land rights
ideologues to the agency, she used her farm
experience to create a bridge.
"I said I haven't done a lot on your issues,
but when I was growing up I used to castrate sheep
with my teeth," she related. "I thought it was
funny. But I looked over at Steven Williams, who
was running the Fish and Wildlife Service, and
he's got his head in his hands. That was my first
clue that maybe I had been a little too frank."
As the Interior Department's top lawyer,
Wooldridge will be involved in lawsuits, meetings,
negotiations and other sorts of contacts with
Congress, other federal agencies, American Indian
tribes and the public.
Wooldridge left her private legal practice in
Sacramento in January 2001 to serve as deputy
chief of staff and counselor to Norton. Before
that, she was general counsel to California's Fair
Political Practices Commission and as special
assistant attorney general under former state
Attorney General Dan Lungren.
Since going to work as Norton's deputy,
Wooldridge has been the point person for the
Interior Department on the Klamath River
controversy, wading through the thicket of
conflicts that it presents for the Interior
Department. Among the department's agencies are
the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of
Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- all of which are involved in the fight
encompassing irrigators, endangered upstream fish
and downstream salmon runs that are vital to the
economy of Indian tribes.
aptly described the Klamath situation as a bunch
of sore thumbs," she said. "Everyone involved has
had their thumbs smashed at sometime or other."
Wooldridge said her goal has been to find an
agreement in which all sides can find a benefit.
While an agreement is not in hand, Wooldridge is
credited for her hard work.
"She's a straight shooter," said Glen Spain of
the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's
Associations. "She is familiar with the issues.
She cares about a solution. But this is not an
easily solved problem."
Spain and others said the question now is
whether Wooldridge will be drawn away from the
Klamath River dispute by her new, if temporary,
Wooldridge acknowledged that she would have
less time for the Klamath now that she is the
department's top lawyer with a plateful of
controversies from Florida to the Alaskan arctic.
"But I am going to do everything I can to keep
my hand in it," she said.