01/22/2013 01:34 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Secretary Salazar -- A Legacy of Land Conservation

This week, Secretary Ken Salazar announced his retirement, bringing an end to his tenure at the Interior Department. As a veteran of the Persian Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom, I'm personally grateful to Secretary Salazar for his leadership in conserving America's lands and, in particular, protecting special places that recognize and pay tribute to our military heritage.

Before Secretary Salazar took the helm, the Interior Department was known more for its rapport with the oil and gas industry than for conserving America's public lands. Thankfully, Secretary Salazar has been a steady hand at the tiller, guiding the Department towards a more balanced approach to managing America's parks and public lands.

He is to be commended for advocating for the economic benefit of adding four new national monuments; establishing seven new national parks, 10 new National Wildlife Refuges, and laying the groundwork to conserve millions of acres as part of the Administration's America's Great Outdoors initiative.

Veterans are particularly grateful to the Secretary for honoring the men and women who have served our country by advocating for the national monument designation of Fort Monroe in Virginia and Fort Ord in California.

Both places are significant to our military heritage. In fact, Fort Ord has a legacy that stretches back almost 100 years; generations of Americans served at the Fort that overlooks Monterey, California with regiments fighting in World War II and protecting California's coastline after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Secretary Salazar visited Fort Ord, listened to the community's input, and advocated for the protection of this special place.

Along with the new national monument at Fort Monroe, these places are protected for generations to come thanks to the leadership of Secretary Salazar. That significance cannot be underestimated. These are the lands that we fought to protect and these national monuments honor that service and pay tribute to our sacrifice.

I hope that during the Secretary's closing chapter at the Interior Department he'll consider writing three addendums to all that he's accomplished. For the first two, I encourage the Secretary to advocate for the permanent protection of Rio Grande del Norte and the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in New Mexico before his departure. For the third, I encourage the Secretary to travel to California to hear from the local community about the need to protect the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands in Mendocino County as part of the California Coastal National Monument.

The Rio Grande del Norte encompasses Ute Mountain, a former volcano that rises over 10,000 feet, and a 200-foot-deep, 150-foot-wide canyon with cliffs that plunge down to the Rio Grande. This is a place of solitude and quiet for hiking, hunting and fishing. Last December, Secretary Salazar visited and held a listening session with the local community about protecting Rio Grande del Norte and was greeted with diverse and unanimous support for designating a new national monument.

In southern New Mexico, the call of many New Mexicans for a national monument encompassing the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region is also strong and includes veterans, Hispanic leaders, sportsmen, businesses, city councils and the Dona Aňa County Commission. This area provides outstanding recreational opportunities, scenery and wildlife habitat, and is home to thousands of historical and cultural sites. The Organ, Portillo, Robledo and Sierra de Las Uvas Mountains are beloved to county residents, 83 percent of which support designating these areas as a national monument, according to a recent poll.

As well, the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands are a place of great natural beauty and tranquility. Overlooking the Mendocino Coastline, these lands offer spectacular views of the ocean, crashing waves and rocky cliffs. It is a place that offers perspective and stirs reflection from its visitors.
Veterans return home with many scars -- some visible and many invisible. Spending time in the great outdoors -- hiking with family or friends, fishing or camping -- are activities that provide calm after years spent at war. It is places like Rio Grande del Norte and Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands that, for many veterans, provide the first steps toward healing.

Secretary Salazar will be missed at the Interior Department. We are looking forward, however, to working with the next Secretary and the White House to continue his legacy of restoring a balanced approach to managing America's parks and public lands, protecting as many acres of our national heritage as are leased to oil and gas companies. Thanks to Secretary Salazar, the Department has a clear path forward to reaching this balance.

I'm honored to speak up in recognition of Secretary Salazar and the work he's done. There's a great history of conservation in this country -- led, in my opinion, by the great Teddy Roosevelt. His work protecting America's land shaped the country that we now know. My thanks go out to Secretary Salazar for adding to this tradition of conservation. I salute the Secretary for his many accomplishments for this great nation and wish him well in the next chapter.