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Can Ken Salazar clean the stables at Interior?

There is something about the office of Secretary of the Interior that tempts its occupants to the abuse of power, particularly if they are Republicans. With this as background, the first job for Colorado U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, as Interior Secretary-designate, will simply be to clean the stables. Interior, created in 1849, has had more than its share of scoundrels.

In the last century, the corruption began with Albert Fall, infamous progenitor of the Teapot Dome scandals that rocked the administration of President Warren G. Harding. Douglas McKay, the former Oregon governor, got caught in timber scandals in the Eisenhower Administration. Fast forward to Ronald Reagan’s infamous Secretary James Watt, then into Gail Norton, President George W. Bush’s first Secretary, both of whom shamelessly favored private resource interests over public interests in Western lands. More recently, the Bush Administration’s familiar denial of science, allowed Julie MacDonald, former assistant secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, to arbitrarily sidetrack or reverse about a dozen decisions related to endangered species.

Following that, what can Northwest environmentalists expect from an office that regulates or owns much of what is important in the region’s habitat?

Salazar’s record does not paint him as an ideologue or power broker, nor does it present a predictable agenda. His major contribution in Colorado was Colorado’s Great Outdoors Amendment that designates state lottery profits for land conservation, not something he’s likely to repeat nationally. He comes from a ranching family, and ranchers use a lot of public land under Interior; but he’s been a strong supporter of national parks and wilderness.

Interior is often used as a political statement; certainly that was the case with James Watt, Harold Ickes (1933-46), and Stewart Udall (1961-69). Salazar’s appointment, not universally popular with either environmentalists or resource users, signals pragmatism, a nod to Hispanic heritage and, most of all, a sense that Colorado is one of those states that turned Democrat in 2008 and plays a key role in the party’s plans in the future.

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