Manuel Luján Jr., who spent 20 years as a Republican congressman and later as a U.S. Interior Secretary who drew fire from environmentalists for challenging the Endangered Species Act, has died. He was 90.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Luján Grisham, who was a distant cousin, said Lujan died Thursday at his home in Albuquerque. He had a long history of heart trouble and underwent triple-bypass surgery after a 1986 heart attack.
“Manuel Luján was the picture of a statesman,” the Democratic governor said in a statement Friday. “Over the course of ten Congressional terms and four years as secretary of the Interior, he fought for his constituents, striving for balance between competing interests.”
Luján represented New Mexico’s 1st District from 1969 to 1989. He gained a reputation as an advocate for Native Americans, business and constituents in a majority-Democratic district.
As Luján’s final term wound down, President George H.W. Bush tapped him for his Cabinet.
As interior secretary, Luján sought to strike a balance between business interests and the Endangered Species Act, which he said was too tough on regional economies.
He said proposed federal protection of the northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest would cost 31,000 timber jobs. Calling those consequences unacceptable, Luján launched an exemption process by convening a little-used committee with the power to allow logging to continue despite the threat to the owl.
“No solution to this problem could be found short of this action,” Luján said, pointing to major economic disruptions to Northwest timber towns.
The Cabinet-level panel, known as the “God Squad” because of its authority to allow species to become extinct, was disbanded later amid legal challenges.
Environmentalists also recoiled when Luján shrugged off efforts to protect the Mount Graham red squirrel in Arizona.
“Do we have to save every subspecies?” he said. “Nobody’s told me the difference between a red squirrel, a black one or a brown one.”
Luján remained in the Cabinet until the end of Bush’s term in January 1993. Five minutes before the Republican president left office, Luján tried to transfer federally owned desert land in Southern California that he and then-California Gov. Pete Wilson wanted for a nuclear waste dump.
Luján’s successor, Bruce Babbitt, rescinded the order, and courts determined Luján acted improperly.
At the same time, Luján was a prime mover in creating Petroglyphs National Monument on the rugged volcanic mesa located west of Albuquerque, to protect thousands of prehistoric and historic petroglyphs. After leaving government, Luján became a lobbyist for a development company that owned petroglyph-studded land.
The Luján name still resonates in New Mexico politics, though Democrats last year consolidated control over the state’s delegation to Washington.
In a statement Friday, Democratic U.S. Rep. and Senate candidate Ben Ray Luján, who was not related, praised Manuel Luján for opening opportunities for Hispanics in federal government.
Luján is survived by his wife, Jean, and three children.