Manuel Luján Jr., Ex-Congressman and Interior Secretary, Dies at 90

Manuel Luján Jr., a former 10-term Republican congressman from New Mexico and a secretary of the interior whose efforts to balance development and conservation of federal lands often left him at loggerheads with environmentalists, died on Thursday night at his home in Albuquerque. He was 90.

A granddaughter, Amy Everett, confirmed the death. In a statement, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, a Democrat and a distant cousin of his, called Mr. Luján “the picture of a statesman.”

The scion of a well-connected New Mexico family, Mr. Luján mounted his first congressional campaign in 1968 at age 40, unseating the incumbent, Thomas Morris, and becoming the first Republican congressman from New Mexico since 1931.

He held that position continuously for the next 20 years despite major demographic shifts in his constituency.

In his early years in office, Mr. Luján represented a mainly rural district, encompassing several Native American territories and large undeveloped areas of Northern New Mexico. He joined the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs in his first term and rose to become the ranking Republican member by 1981.

In the early 1980s, his district was shrunk to a narrow area around Albuquerque. Tailoring his agenda to a more urban base with research and technology interests, like the Sandia National Laboratory, he joined the Committee on Space, Science and Technology, becoming the ranking Republican in 1987.

Often described as an even-tempered and practical public servant, Mr. Luján typically favored local solutions over sweeping federal legislation. “To this day, I don’t think that we need to pass a law for everything, for all the ills that we have,” he said in an interview in 2000. “Matter of fact, I think that the less laws we have, the better off we are.”

Bruce F. Vento, a former congressman from Minnesota, called him “a pragmatic guy who operates in the world of the possible.”

Before he could retire in 1988, having decided to forgo an 11th term, Mr. Luján was nominated by President-elect George H. W. Bush to be his secretary of the interior. He became the second Hispanic-American to serve in a cabinet, following in the footsteps of Lauro F. Cavazos Jr., who had only months earlier become secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan.

Although Mr. Luján was confirmed unanimously by the Senate in 1989, his hands-off approach to governance and eagerness to accommodate competing interests proved less popular in the wake of several national controversies.

Within months of his confirmation, he was confronted by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which touched off an environmental crisis in Alaska. Though Mr. Luján helped oversee cleanup efforts and negotiate settlements with Exxon, he drew fire for simultaneously pushing ahead with proposals to open parts of California and Florida to offshore drilling.

He was also criticized for his skepticism about the Endangered Species Act and his hesitance to extend federal protection to the northern spotted owl, a test case in the larger debate over endangered species.

In 1991, Mr. Luján was part of the so-called God Squad — a committee of cabinet officials tasked with deciding whether to allow logging in old-growth forests thought to be critical to the owl’s survival.

Angering environmentalists, the committee voted to sell logging rights in some areas while placing other tracts off limits. A federal judge later overruled that decision.

While critics complained that Mr. Luján’s policies echoed the pro-business philosophy of such predecessors as James G. Watt and Donald P. Hodel, both of whom served under Reagan, Mr. Luján was considered more open to compromise.

He was a close friend of Morris K. Udall, the liberal Democratic congressman and eminent preservationist, and the two worked closely together on the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, which Mr. Udall led starting in 1977. “Mo and I never had any difficulties as far as partisanship was concerned,” Mr. Luján said.

As secretary, he also advised President Bush on reversing a number of Reagan-era policies seen as out of touch with modern environmental standards. The new policies included raising the fees that coal companies paid to mine on federal land, as well as those paid by concessionaires in federal parks, with some of the revenue returned to the park system.

“Interior is like a sack full of cats,” Mr. Luján said in 1990. “All those different interests, and you’re in the middle of that sack trying to keep everybody away from each other.”

José Manuel Luján Jr., one of nine children, was born on May 12, 1928, on a farm by the San Ildefonso Pueblo in Santa Fe County, N.M. His father was the founder of Manuel Luján Agencies, an insurance company, and was mayor of Santa Fe from 1942 to 1948. His mother, Lorenzita (Romero) Luján, was a teacher and served as Santa Fe County clerk.

Mr. Luján’s family was forced to relocate twice during his childhood — first when the federal government enlarged the Native American reservations neighboring their farm, and again when their home in Los Alamos was displaced by the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb.

He often credited those experiences with informing his opinions about federal control over public lands, particularly on the issue of safeguarding Native American land rights.

Mr. Luján graduated in 1950 from St. Michael’s College in Santa Fe (now the Santa Fe University of Art and Design), where he majored in business administration.

While in college, he married Jean Kay Couchman, who survives him. In addition to his granddaughter Ms. Everett, he is also survived by two daughters, Terra Everett and Barbara Lujan; a son, Robert, who goes by Jeff; two brothers, Edward and George; a sister, Zenaida Padilla; four other grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Another son, Jay, died earlier.

Mr. Luján retired in 1993 after serving as interior secretary throughout the one-term Bush presidency. He expressed few regrets about leaving public life, finding the political climate overly contentious after a relatively quiet and productive congressional career.

At a talk he gave in Colorado in 2004, he responded jokingly when asked to reflect on his experience applying the Endangered Species Act. “We’re lucky we’re in front of a big audience,” he said, “because I vowed when I left that I was going to kill anybody who ever mentioned the spotted owl.”

He added, “I’ll tell you very honestly, I’m glad that I’m not in politics anymore.”

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