Salazar to sign off

It’s no great surprise that Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar is joining the parade of Obama administration Cabinet officers who won’t stay on for the second term.

Salazar plans to leave at the end of March and return to Colorado. He will receive a mixed welcome here, based on his record the past four years at Interior. We believe Salazar is a dedicated public servant and an honorable man who found it frustrating to steer the behemoth and controversy laden Interior Department.

For many observers, the surpise is that Salazar lasted as long as he did. He was, after all, on the hot seat following the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Watchdog groups attacked him, claiming employees of Interior’s Minerals Management Service were too cozy with the industry they oversaw and allowed obvious problems to remain unrepaired. Gulf residents and environmental groups claimed Interior’s response to the BP spill was too slow and limited to contain the leaking oil and prevent disaster. Industry officials and many Gulf-area community leaders were appalled when Salazar issued a six-month drilling moratorium in the Gulf, claiming that he was decimating the region’s economy.

It was a no-win situation, one of several Salazar found himself in as Interior secretary. Wild-horse management was another such issue. Salazar’s failure to deliver on early promises created problems, while wild-horse advocates ramped up their rhetoric and legal challenges against him.

Too often, Salazar’s quick temper escalated the conflict, as when he threatened to hit a Colorado Springs reporter who asked questions about the wild-horse program.

We’ve had our own disappointments with Salazar. One notable example involved his private statements to local folks that he would persuade officials with the National Park Service to be more accommodating on things like bike races in Colorado National Monument. Other than an unfulfilled pledge by monument officials to seek more local input on proposed events, there’s little evidence Salazar effected any changes.

On oil and gas issues, Salazar and Obama sought credit for increased production on public lands in the West, while ignoring the fact that most of that production occurred on lands leased during the Bush administration.

Salazar, like many Cabinet secretaries before him, learned that while he might have nominal authority over federal agencies, agency culture and long-embedded career employees can make it extremely difficult to achieve significant changes.

Salazar certainly can point to accomplishments. There are a number of new wildife refuges, national parks and national monuments established since 2009. The largest solar energy projects in the world are being constructed on public lands in this country. A decades-old legal claim about mismanagement of Indian funds was settled under his watch. New efforts to understand and protect the water and water rights of the Colorado River were undertaken during his tenure.

Salazar served Colorado well before becoming the Interior secretary. We expect he will do so again when he returns to his native state. But his legacy at Interior will be mixed, at best.


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