WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. is choosing his words more carefully these days.
His earlier off-the-cuff remarks on everything from cattle grazing on federal lands to the Alaska oil spill provided his critics with ample ammunition during his first 18 months in President Bush's Cabinet.
Some of these critics have even raised questions about his ability to run one of the government's oldest, most broad-reaching and powerful departments.
"Manuel thinks out loud, and that causes some difficulty once in a while," acknowledges John Schrote, a top aide who has known Lujan for two decades.
But Lujan is not staying out of the spotlight.
In back-to-back news conferences last month, he was the point man for the Bush Administration on its decision to restrict offshore oil drilling and on its plan to balance the needs of the "threatened" spotted owl with the economics of the timber industry.
Environmentalists hailed the former and denounced the latter.
The former New Mexico congressman is not unaccustomed to being the target of environmentalists.
"Do we have to save every subspecies?" Lujan asked recently in Colorado, maintaining that the federal Endangered Species Act should be made more flexible to accommodate economic interests in some cases.
Questioning environmentalists' concerns over the construction of a $200-million telescope in Arizona that threatens an endangered colony of red squirrels, Lujan told a reporter: "Nobody told me the difference between the red squirrel, a black one or a brown one."
The National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and Wilderness Society and other conservationists attacked Lujan. In a floor speech, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) suggested that the Interior secretary didn't know the endangered species law he is supposed to implement.
Among other things, environmentalists have criticized Lujan's strong support for oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, his repeated calls for more offshore oil drilling and his renewal of long-term water contracts in California before reviewing their environmental impact.
When the National Park Service produced a long study showing that sulfur emissions from an electric power plant are polluting the air over the Grand Canyon, the park service wanted the Environmental Protection Agency to intervene. Lujan, instead, referred the matter for more study by the National Academy of Sciences.
"We're clearly not impressed. When the going gets tough he punts," says Steve Whitney, who follows national park issues for the Wilderness Society.
At first glance, it's hard to envision Lujan in the midst of such rows.
Well-liked personally, even by his critics, the Interior secretary is easygoing, affable and without pretensions. He resembles more the insurance agent he once was in Albuquerque than a Cabinet member under fire.
"Interior is like a sack full of cats," Lujan says. "You have the mining interests, the environmental interests, the timber interests and the recreation interests. All those different interests and you're in the middle of that sack trying to keep everybody away from each other."
All the reaction is not negative.
Environmentalists praise his moves to revitalize some of the national parks and some of his coal mining decisions.
"He's trying to do a good job. You don't judge someone on whether he's done everything you want," says Paul Prichard, president of the National Park and Conservation Assn.
Still, some of the attacks have been vicious, with critics suggesting that Lujan may not know enough about the major issues facing his complex and powerful department.
"It's too easy to look better than James Watt," says David Gardner, legislative director of the Sierra Club. It was a reference to the pro-development Reagan-era Interior secretary still widely disliked among environmentalists.
Newspaper headlines have called Lujan the "weak link" in the Bush Cabinet and a magazine article last year compared him to "a kinder, dimmer version" of Watt.
"You don't like it when they say that, naturally," Lujan says. "One is a human being and you'd rather they said nice things about you. But I've been in politics for 20 years and I'm no stranger to criticism."
His senior aides bristle at the attacks. They charge that environmentalists are never satisfied unless their agenda is followed without compromise, that the Eastern press is looking for easy headlines and that political opponents in Congress all are eager to jump on an offhand remark.
"I've been very environmentally responsible," Lujan says. "But I think the criticism is that I don't go all the way and just consider the environment. I try to balance things off."
Indeed, friends and associates describe Lujan as a compromiser, conciliator, a man who seeks a balance, or middle ground.
But his aides concede that Lujan has a knack for falling victim to his own words.