Like all newly minted Cabinet members, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has been adjusting to life in the executive branch. Five years of sticking up for the beauty of his home state of Colorado in the U.S. Senate appears to have left him well prepared for his appointment as the nation's top conservationist.
Supervising about 70,000 employees in 2,400 offices across the country, Salazar, who oversees the Fish and Wildlife and National Park Services, as well as the Bureaus of Land Management, Reclamation and Indian Affairs, has found himself in charge of 500 million acres of land, about one-fifth of the United States.
His purview also extends to 1.76 billion acres of outer continental shelf that includes 8,300 oil and gas leases.
"I think the challenges that we face in our world are frankly more challenging today in 2009 than perhaps at anytime in my lifetime," he told ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff in his first national television interview as secretary.
See the interview Saturday on the Planet Green Network's "Focus Earth" with Bob Woodruff.
Salazar Wednesday announced a restraining order on the sale of 77 oil and gas leases near national parks in Utah, saying, "There are four national treasurers which are icons that are located right in that vicinity. And, frankly, the process that was used by the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] did not even allow enough input on the part of the National Park Service or other groups to make sure that these lease sales had the right balance. Balance has to be that we need to protect our national treasuries. But, at the same time, we need to allow development to take place."
President Bush announced the opening of these leases in December, a month before he left office, a move that Salazar faults.
"You know, the Bush administration, I think believed that there was nothing that was off-limits," he said. "That it was OK to look for oil and gas under every rock, no matter where it was, either onshore or offshore in the United States. So that's the perspective. President Obama's and my perspective as secretary of interior [is that] we need to find balance. So there's no doubt oil and gas will be a great part of our energy portfolio as we move forward. But we also are going to find a balance so that we protect a special place in America."
Asked if he thought the Bush administration had that balance, he said, "I think, frankly, there was not."
While this latest issue deals with leases on U.S. land, it was offshore oil and gas deposits that made headlines during the presidential campaign, something that Salazar will now oversee.
"I believe strongly that there are [oil and gas deposits] that will be found," he said. "So we'll be seeing additional offshore drilling. But we need to make sure that we're doing it in consultation with the stakeholders, including the governors of those states. And making sure that the important environmental values and economic values in places like Florida and other places like that are being protected."
While the day-to-day policy work will surely take up much of his time, Salazar has also vowed to clean up a Department of the Interior that he said was left to him in ethical shambles. In a White House news conference Jan. 28, he had some harsh criticism for the department under the Bush administration, a department besieged by scandal.
"It is one of the worst examples of corruption, abuse and of government putting special interests before the public interest," Salazar told the media in that briefing.
He reaffirmed his pledge to clean up the department.
"That was about sex and drugs and alcohol being brought into a government agency at a very high level, career employees of the department, and from the violations of the law, both at the federal level and at the state level," he said. "And that is absolutely rotten. It shouldn't have happened. ... We are not going to allow ethical lapses within the Department of Interior. If those ethical lapses are brought to our attention, we will take immediate action."
The Obama administration believes it has put the department in capable hands and Salazar's record in the Senate and as Colorado's attorney general would appear to support such a notion. But some environmentalists bristled at the choice when Obama announced it back in December.
The charge was that Salazar was in the pocket of oil and coal companies and that his Senate record included votes in favor of tax breaks for Exxon-Mobil and reduced fuel standards for U.S. automobiles.
'We Will Make the Decisions That Are Right for America'
Salazar defended his record.
"I believe that there ought to be significantly increased efficiency than cars with the advance vehicle technologies that we have," he said. "And I have been a champion in the Senate Energy Committee. Or the Senate Finance Committee, in terms of pushing forward with incentives for hybrids, for plug-in hybrids, for an electric infrastructure highway that would allow us to move into that new kind of technology."
The League of Conservation Voters scored him with an average of 85 percent positive rating during his tenure in the Senate. He won election in 2004.
"I'm not here to please the environmental community," Salazar said. "I'm not here to please the industry either. You know, we will make the decisions that are right for America. And I think that when the environmental community and industry look back at the record that I have in my state, I think we have done more on the environmental side for land conservation by creating the premier land conservation program in the United States of America and my state. The preservation of and restoration of rivers, preservation of endangered species; I would ask those people who have questions to look at the record."