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Salazar at the Interior Department: So Much at Stake

01/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I welcome the news that President-elect Obama has appointed Senator Ken Salazar at the Secretary of the Interior. After years of corruption and corporate dominance at the Interior Department, we desperately need to change the way America's national parks, public lands and wildlife are managed. Salazar must usher in that change, because so much is at stake.

As Secretary of the Interior, Salazar will oversee not only the Bureau of Land Management, but also the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This is our entire natural heritage. And when it comes to wilderness and threatened species, bad actions are irreparable.

Last year, I flew over the Roan Plateau, one of the most biologically diverse areas in Colorado. The plateau rises 3,500 feet above the Colorado River Valley, and from the plane I could see its green expanses of rolling shrubs and thriving aspen stands -- home to cougars, black bears, and golden eagles.

But once the plane veered off the plateau, the land was scarred with drill pads, pipelines, and waste dumps. The contrast was startling, yet this same fate could befall the Roan Plateau: The Bureau of Land Management announced its decision to allow oil and gas drilling in the area. NRDC is fighting those plans.

But even if the Roan Plateau wins a reprieve, thousands of other polluting energy projects marched ahead in the last eight years. Just today, NRDC Trustee Robert Redford gave a press conference about NRDC's lawsuit to block a final Bush attempt to give away pristine public lands in Utah. This is what Salazar has to change or wild places like the Roan Plateau will be lost forever.

Salazar's own connection to the land gives me hope. Salazar is a fifth-generation Coloradan who grew up on a cattle and alfalfa ranch without running water or electricity. His home was is in the stunning San Luis Valley, where rich ranching and farming land is banked by the wild San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges.

As a senator, Salazar supported his state's efforts to limit the impacts to groundwater from the heavily polluting process of in-situ uranium mining and taken often lonely stands against oil shale. Still, the challenges before Salazar are great, and he will need to be a forceful leader for change.

Salazar Must Restore Balance to Managing America's Lands

Thanks to the infamous Cheney Energy Task Force, the Bush administration made energy development the top priority for public lands. It directed agencies like the BLM to abandon the Congressional mandate of "multiple use" for public lands, which for over 30 years has required that energy development be balanced against other values such as recreation and environmental protection.

The approach was summed up by Tom Gnojek, a BLM employee in Price, Utah, who was quoted in the LA Times as saying, "If [a landscape] is not wanted by the oil and gas industry or the ORV [off-road vehicle] industry, we can protect it."

Salazar must put an end to industry getting first dibs at land owned by the American people. All parties need a seat at the table when land management plans are made, and conservationist values need to be restored to their rightful place in the decision-making process.

Salazar Must Restore Ethical Conduct

A rash of crooked deeds has plagued the Interior Department for several years. Some involve seedy instances of Mineral Management employees doling out cocaine and sex. Others point to a more systemic crisis. Just this week, the department's inspector general informed Congress that on 15 occasions political appointees within the Interior Department willfully disregarded agency scientists and chose to weaken protections for endangered species even when the data called for the opposite.

Salazar has to send a powerful signal that the era of unethical behavior and unchecked industry influence is over. This will be challenging. The Bush administration has been hurriedly embedding its political appointees into staff positions at the BLM and other agencies.

But Salazar can combat it in two ways. First, he can tap people to run the Interior agencies who come directly from the fields of conservation, land management, or government stewardship. Second, he can establish a culture in which independent scientific data is the final litmus test for all agency decisions.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.