Historically, the Utah Department of Natural Resources has been the epitome of good-ol'-boyism. Cowboy boots, pickup trucks and plenty of Old West attitude to rankle conservationists all the way to Washington, D.C.

But Gov. Mike Leavitt chose to buck history Monday when he appointed Kathleen Clarke as executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, the first woman to hold the position in the department's history."In this arena, I guess it is a unique position. But, I've never made gender an issue," Clarke said. "I would hope that I was appointed because of my skills, qualifications and expertise, not because I wear a skirt.

"Not that I did, anyway," she said, pointing at her well-tailored pants.

Leavitt has nothing but confidence in Clarke - a former DNR deputy director and interim executive director - while at the same time he defended her predecessor, Ted Stewart. Stewart left his position as director of the beleaguered DNR in March to become Leavitt's chief of staff.

"Ted guided the department through some very difficult challenges, and it emerged as - I believe - one of the finest departments in state government."

Some question its fineness, however. Controversy has swirled relentlessly around the DNR for years, from the spread of whirling disease believed to have originated in trout farms owned by the Leavitt family, to wildlife conservation issues, to claims of botched land management.

Leavitt admitted the road ahead for Clarke will likely not be smooth. "The department has often been the focus of different sets of values and philosophies," he said. "In fact, I've often heard it said that for whoever's running it, it's like riding a bucking bronco."

Utah environmentalists may have cause to worry about Clarke's loyalty to past directors, though, especially since the DNR has historically been used as a political bludgeon against causes near and dear to conservationists' hearts. Things like wildlife preservation and wilderness.

"I wish her good luck because she has a big, big job ahead of her," said Scott Groene, issues coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "That department is fraught with problems, from the irresponsible statements by the Utah Geological Survey about coal valuations on the Escalante National Monument to all the tax money being wasted on their anti-wilderness agenda.

"It will be interesting to see if she can rein in all the loose cannons over there," he added.

Leavitt believes Clarke is ready for the challenge, saying she has the "leadership, natural resources expertise and the confidence of constituents to carry this department forward. She has the ability to move this department to another, higher level of state government."

Assuming her appointment gains Senate approval, Clarke will then take her first - official - steps onto new ground. No other woman has been appointed to the DNR directorship, and only four other women in the Leavitt administration hold similar positions in major departments.

For her part, Clarke said she is committed to building on Stewart's legacy. "I think we've got a good organization in place. I don't know that there will be any major shifts."

While the issues are "contentious and many," she pledged to work to unify her department and build "straightforward, open, honest dialogue" with the public.

For now, though, conservationists and wildlife advocates are forced to wait to see what - if anything - Clarke does different with the department. And that can be hard. They know relatively little about Clarke, and they say she has no proven track record on which they can base optimism or pessimism.

In a strange twist of fate, one wildlife advocate even expressed disappointment that Stewart - long considered a thorn in the side of environmentalists - is no longer director of the department. "At least we knew where he was coming from. There was even a feeling he was coming around on some of our issues, that he would at least listen to us," he said.

But with Clarke, no one knows what they will be getting. There is some nervousness over her close ties to Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, long considered an archenemy of environmentalists. Clarke was formerly Hansen's director of constituent services and executive director of his Ogden office.

Stewart, who also worked for Hansen, says the public will be getting in Clarke "a fine manager."

"She has the vision to see that we have got to have a more wholistic resource base. She knows we can't have people in one department saying, `I don't have to pay attention to what you are doing,' while people in other departments are saying, `Well, then I don't have to pay attention to what you guys are doing.' It has to be for the betterment of the whole ecosystem. Kathleen sees that," he said.