As former Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar takes over the U.S. Department of the Interior this week, he faces a series of challenges left to him by past secretaries Dirk Kempthorne, a former Idaho governor, and Gale Norton, a former Colorado attorney general.

From confronting corruption and mismanagement to grappling with questions of how best to develop the energy resources locked beneath the country’s federal lands, Salazar’s task is daunting.

Here are several of the issues Salazar, as the Interior Department’s 50th director, will have to deal with over the next several years:


As President George W. Bush prepared to leave office, one of the final federal rules he made initiated the formulation of federal regulations governing the development of commercial oil shale.

Colorado, Utah and Wyoming are home to an estimated 1 trillion barrels of oil locked in shale formations.

Gov. Bill Ritter and Salazar roundly criticized the rule-making as premature.

President Barack Obama halted all ongoing rule-making proceedings the day he took office, and Salazar and his agency will have to act quickly to assess the rules and see what is worth keeping or tossing.

“Oil shale should be part of any plan for the country’s energy future, but we ought not be reckless,” Salazar said last week.


Months before Salazar’s name was even mentioned as a nominee to head the Department of the Interior, one of the agency’s arms, the Mineral Management Service, became embroiled in controversy.

According to a September report from the agency’s inspector general, staff with the Mineral Management Service, which oversees energy development on federal lands, accepted gifts from energy companies.

The report said staff from the agency “frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.”

Salazar’s former colleagues in the Senate have praised his stated openness to cleaning up the agency.

“You now have to go in there and drain the swamp,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said last week, “and America has heard you say today, to your credit, that that is priority No. 1.”


Over the past several years, a top position at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which manages Indian tribal lands and provides services to residents of Indian reservations, has remained unfilled.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., the head of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, has lambasted the lack of an assistant secretary at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, saying services for Indian communities have suffered as a result.

During a March 2007 speech on the Senate floor, Dorgan said the lack of someone overseeing many of the services to American Indian communities has been devastating.

“That is unbelievable,” he said then. “Nowhere in this country are there more significant and enduring problems than those that exist on many Indian reservations. Many live in Third World conditions. … We need to have this position filled.”

“Fix the BIA. You’ll do that right?” Dorgan implored Salazar last week.

Salazar replied by calling any vacancies at the top of the Interior Department and Bureau of Indian Affairs “a slap in the face of Native American communities.”


As the federal government works to help wolf populations return to North America and western states they used to call home, Salazar will have to work with states in the Rocky Mountain West to balance wildlife and rancher concerns about the repopulation effort.

The federal government removed Endangered Species Act protections for the wolf in a handful of states, including Idaho and Utah, but the wolves in Wyoming remained protected.

Sen. John Barraso, R-Wyo., and other Wyoming leaders have decried the Interior Department and federal courts’ decisions to protect the wolf in Wyoming.

“I think it’s time to get the wolf off the Endangered Species Act,” Barraso said last year. “The wolf has had a terrible impact for our ranchers, our hunters. The effect on livestock as well as wildlife has been incredible.”


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