On January 29, 2009, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar stood before a room full of federal employees and reporters at the Lakewood, Colorado, office of the Minerals Management Service and laid down the new law. “The president has made it clear that the type of ethical transgressions, blatant conflicts of interest, wastes and abuses we have seen over the past eight years will no longer be tolerated,” said Salazar. “The Department of Interior will raise the bar for ethics, and we will set the standard for reform.”
Just nine days into his new post as the overseer of many of the nation’s natural resources, Salazar was deriding the rogue employees of the Minerals Management Service, the agency that oversees development of the West’s vast oil and gas reserves, for a departmental scandal last year in which oil and gas industry representatives traded sex and drugs to government officials in exchange for favorable rulings. The revelations fueled further public scorn about the roughshod development of natural energy extraction careening through Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.
Six days later, Salazar was taking full advantage of the power of his new post. He cancelled natural gas leases on 77 parcels of proposed wilderness areas on Bureau of Land Management plots in southeastern Utah. These parcels—located close to Arches and Canyonlands national parks, Dinosaur National Monument and Nine Mile Canyon—had been sold in a hasty December 19, 2008, auction, just a month before the Obama administration took office. Again, Salazar spoke with conviction. “In its last weeks in office, the Bush administration rushed ahead to sell oil and gas leases at the doorstep of some of our nation’s most treasured landscapes in Utah,” Salazar said in a press conference. “We need to responsibly develop our oil and gas supplies. We must do so in a thoughtful and balanced way that allows us to protect our signature landscapes.”
The message was clear. After two terms of pro-energy and pro-development policies by the Bush administration—resulting in widely documented abuses that range from ignoring science to letting rivers run dry and weakening the Endangered Species Act—America’s natural resources are under the protection of a new chief. Things are going to be much different. But what everyone who uses public lands wants to know is will it be better?
Striking the Balance
A fifth-generation Colorado rancher turned lawyer, Salazar paid his dues in state government before earning a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2004. In between, as Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, he funded recreation and reformed mining and petroleum operations. When President Barrack Obama nominated him to head the Interior Department, which oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Minerals Management Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service and Office of Surface Mining, Salazar sailed through his confirmation hearings and became the first Hispanic to hold the office.
For the most part, representatives from both sides of the political fence were relieved. Salazar is a moderate, thoughtful, measured Westerner who will strike a balance between protecting the natural world and drawing energy—oil, natural gas and renewable energies—from our public lands. They credit his family ties to a ranch in Colorado’s San Luis Valley for giving Salazar profound, influential experience to head an often contentious department. As a result of his heritage, however, Salazar has a personal and complex connection with the land that will give him necessary empathy as he makes important decisions, says Patty Limerick, faculty director at the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “The cowboy hat is really perfect,” she says, referring to Salazar’s trademark white 10-gallon headpiece. “He is so credentialed in not just looking like a Westerner, but actually being a Westerner.”
Geography matters in this post. The vast majority of the Interior Secretary’s domain is in the West. He oversees the administration of all federal public lands with the exception of national forests. His influence extends from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to Rocky Mountain National Park to the Washington Monument to Nevada’s Badlands and beyond. Salazar has made it clear that he’s no Ed Abbey, but neither is he a “drill-baby-drill” demagogue like Gale Norton and Dirk Kempthorne, his predecessors from the Bush Administration. Just what does the cowboy hat-wearing, soft-spoken, moon-faced czar of the natural world intend to do? In a word: balance.
“I’ve spent my political career fighting for Colorado’s land, water and people,” Salazar said in an interview with Elevation Outdoors. “And in the last four years [as a U.S. Senator], I worked very hard moving us forward to a new era of energy. I expect the Department of Interior to be a strong contributing force for continuing that work.”
Cleaning Up the Mess
Salazar is facing a formidable task. The Bush administration adopted aggressive policies to promote domestic energy development, limit the power of the Endangered Species Act and sideline scientific evidence when crafting policies. In Colorado, that translated into increased acreage opened to oil and gas drilling, construction of a controversial natural gas pipeline that transected three roadless areas in the forests near Aspen, and rule changes to facilitate oil shale development, among other changes. In addition, those folks in charge of overseeing the mining and drilling were embroiled in the embarrassing scandal of trading drugs and sex for lease permits.
When he took office in late January, Salazar pledged his agency would scrutinize actions taken by the Bush Administration. Done effectively, Salazar could chart a new era for his agency, according to Limerick. “There really is quite a bit of the bully pulpit that comes with the Secretary of Interior,” says Limerick. “If he speaks in the right places with the right tone, the Secretary of Interior can be quite an opinion maker.”
Granted, that power can manifest itself on either side political spectrum. Under Ronald Reagan, James Watt led the rampage on public lands mineral extraction, loosening regulations and stripping away environmental protections. Then, under the Clinton Administration, Bruce Babbitt oversaw the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone and Idaho. George W. Bush’s first Interior Secretary, Gale Norton (whom Salazar endorsed), withdrew federal lands from consideration for formal wilderness designation and promoted more aggressive oil and gas exploration.