Longform

Ken Salazar wants windmills in the ocean, but first he'll have to save the Interior Department

Page 2 of 9

Asked about the program at the MMS press conference, Salazar punted. "All of the royalty issues need to be looked at," he said. "We will be putting together a major effort to look at what changes we need to make. Hopefully, in the next month or so, we'll be able to be more specific."

Comprehensive royalty reform isn't the only daunting challenge confronting Salazar as he tries to reshape one of the federal government's most factionalized, troubled and critical institutions. Some of the crises he faces are a direct result of the dramatic policy shifts of the past eight years by an administration determined to turn the DOI into an energy-industry Big Lots. Others are built into the 160-year-old agency's contradictory mission, which involves finding some mythical "balance" between the protection and exploitation of the country's public lands and natural resources. Certain quandaries, such as the gross mismanagement of Indian trust accounts, have been brewing for decades, while others — plants and wildlife on the brink of extinction, the impact of climate change and the quest for renewable energy sources — are being grappled with belatedly, having been strenuously ignored by previous administrations.

Neglect seems to go with the job. The Secretary of the Interior has long been one of the least scrutinized cabinet positions, even though it amounts to being king of an empire of riches that exceed the wealth of most countries on earth. The DOI controls one-fifth of the land mass of the United States, and that land contains half of the country's coal and a third of its oil and natural gas. The Secretary is supposed to manage all of this for the benefit of backpackers and energy producers, ranchers and miners, wilderness advocates and off-road enthusiasts, hunters and mountain bikers, while protecting the air and water, soil and plants and wildlife — and also tending to the Outer Continental Shelf, a vast repository of minerals and fossil fuels stretching over more than a million square miles of ocean.

With his thoroughly Western resumé — a background in ranching and water law, involvement in a host of environmental issues as Colorado's natural-resources director and attorney general, then as a U.S. senator — Ken Salazar would appear to be better prepared than most for the demands of the office. Indeed, he's already presented glimpses of the kind of multi-layered agenda not seen since the dawn of the New Deal, couched in JFK-like phrases.

He talks about "taking the moonshot of energy independence" and achieving a New Energy Frontier, with wind towers in the oceans and solar panels across the desert. He's promised to open thousands of jobs to young people in national parks and elsewhere by creating something like the Civilian Conservation Corps of the Great Depression. He wants to preserve the "historocity" (a word that exists only in the Secretary's dictionary) of the DOI's most famous sites, from the Grand Canyon to Ellis Island, and fund a new wave of conservation planning through a national version of Great Outdoors Colorado, a program he helped to launch in his home state that funds parks and open-space projects through lottery proceeds.

Salazar's first two months in office have been a whirlwind of such pronouncements — but with few specifics. With some discomfort, energy interests have watched his zigs away from the wide-open drilling schemes of the Bush years, while environmentalists have been startled by his zags toward a rapid ramp-up of renewable-energy development.

"It's too soon in the semester to give him a grade," says Marc Smith, executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States (IPAMS). "This is probably the toughest job in Washington. Despite the title, he's actually the de facto Secretary of Energy, and that involves a number of very difficult decisions."

Smith's group has disagreed with several of Salazar's decisions so far, including his voiding of a drilling-lease sale near national parks in Utah that the Bush administration conducted, under heavy protest, in December. But the IPAMS director expects traditional producers, particularly the natural-gas industry, to play a significant role in Interior's energy plans. "Our role, hopefully, is to continue to work with the administration and Congress and help them plan holistically," Smith says.

Environmental activists say they, too, are cautiously optimistic about Salazar, even though many of his policy initiatives seem to auger intensive development of public lands. "If his top priority is energy independence, I believe he's on the same page as Dick Cheney," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). "Our concern is that, at the end of the day, we might end up with just as many oil and gas platforms — but they'll all have windmills on them. It sounds like 'Drill, baby, drill, and we'll throw in some geothermal, too.'"

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast