As he announced his pick of Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., to head the Interior Department, President-elect Barack Obama on Wednesday didn't cloak the challenges ahead.
"Over the last eight years, we've had an Interior Department that has been deeply troubled," Obama said, adding that he wants a department that "very frankly, cleans up its act. There have been too many problems, too much emphasis on big-time lobbyists in Washington."
If confirmed, Salazar inherits an agency marred by scandal:
• The agency's inspector general reported Monday that political appointees had repeatedly quashed staff scientists' recommendations on endangered species. The result was "considerable harm … to the morale and reputation" of the department's Fish & Wildlife Service, wrote Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney.
• Interior Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles served 10 months in federal prison for lying to Congress about access he gave to Jack Abramoff, a former lobbyist convicted of corruption charges. Griles was released in July.
• In a September report, the inspector general found extensive misconduct at Interior's Minerals Management Service, which manages revenue from oil and gas exploration on federal land. The report said officials regularly took gifts from companies with which they had business.
Obama introduced Salazar at a press conference in Chicago, where he also announced former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as his choice for agriculture secretary. As governor, Vilsack promoted renewable energy and also advocated farm policies that protect the environment.
After a brief run for the presidential nomination, Vilsack withdrew his name in 2007 and endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton. He later campaigned for Obama.
As Interior secretary, Salazar would take over an agency that manages 500 million acres — roughly 20% of land in the United States. Its portfolio includes national parks, endangered species and Native American tribes.
Salazar would also have to decide what to do about the dozen-plus endangered species whose fate, according to the inspector general, was improperly influenced by political appointees.
He'll also determine the future of more than 150,000 acres of federal land in Utah. The Bush administration plans to auction oil and gas drilling leases there Dec. 19, but an incoming secretary could make it nearly impossible to obtain drilling permits.
Salazar's record on the issue of energy exploration on federal land is mixed. He has opposed drilling in politically sensitive sites such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but supported a compromise bill this year that would've allowed more oil rigs off the nation's coast.
"These issues are very polarizing," said Thomas Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, which supports energy exploration on public lands. "A lot of pressure will be put on him by the environmentalist lobby and the energy lobby."
Explaining why he chose Salazar, Obama cited his experience balancing land preservation and energy exploration.
Salazar "has been at the forefront … in making sure that we are balancing the imperatives of development and our energy needs with sustainability," Obama said.
Environmental groups offered tempered praise of the choice. "I don't expect we'll see eye to eye every time," said Roger Singer, the Sierra Club's Colorado representative. "But compared to the land protection record of the Bush administration for the last seven years, this will be a significant improvement."