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Promotion affects key player on Klamath

Former capital lawyer appointed Interior's solicitor, cutting time Wooldridge has for salmon issue.

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 years ago.

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 her nomination."

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 trouble.

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.

"Someone once 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, job.

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.

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