Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar will leave a decidedly mixed legacy from his four years at the helm of the federal department responsible for protecting many of America’s vast open spaces, treasured parks, and disappearing wildlife.
Salazar’s Interior Department enjoyed some high-profile successes and on occasion took action to better protect important resources. It reached a multi-billion dollar settlement in the long-running and contentious Cobell litigation, a massive class action suit by Indian tribal members over government mismanagement of revenue from tribal resources. The Department under Salazar established seven new national parks and 10 new wildlife refuges.
But in many areas, while Interior took steps to respond to crises and restore some of the protections for land and wildlife that had languished for nearly a decade, it missed important opportunities to keep pace with twenty-first century threats to natural resources.
Salazar’s record on oil and gas development provides a good example. He angered Republicans and industry officials when he rolled back sweetheart oil and gas leases in Utah issued in the waning months of the Bush Administration. Confronted by the epic Deepwater Horizon spill, Salazar implemented a controversial moratorium on offshore drilling and overhauled the federal agency responsible for managing federal oil and gas leasing and development. On the other hand, Interior reforms ultimately stopped well short of those needed to better prevent future large oil spills, and the Department ramped up both on and offshore oil and gas leasing in the Arctic.
Salazar was a key Cabinet official in implementing President Obama’s call for increasing sources of renewable energy. Under his leadership, Interior authorized nearly three dozen solar, wind and geothermal projects on federal public lands, OK’d the controversial Cape Wind facility off the Massachusetts coast, and designated priority zones for expediting construction of solar energy plants and electric transmission lines. But conservation groups have taken issue with a number of these developments, charging that Interior’s push for development of renewable energy and power lines has often come at the expense of wildlife habitat and the wishes of local communities. Some proposed facilities face court challenges.
Interior’s protection of imperiled species – particularly through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s implementation of the Endangered Species Act – has also run hot and cold over the past four years. During the initial years of the Obama Administration, the overall pace of adding species to the ESA’s protected rolls – which slowed to a crawl in the Bush years – increased only slightly under Salazar’s direction. However, in 2011 FWS entered into a high profile settlement agreement with two prominent conservation groups, pledging to clear more the 250 species from its backlog of candidates that the agency has determined warrant protection as threatened or endangered but have not been listed due to a lack of agency resources. Both final listing decisions as well as proposed listings have increased significantly as a result. On the other side of the coin, Interior embraced Bush’s controversial determination that the ESA has essentially no reach over emissions of greenhouse gases, even though climate change is one of the leading threats to many threatened and endangered species.
Salazar plans to return to his home state of Colorado, a state with extensive federal lands that Interior’s policies have helped shape. His successor at the Interior Department will inherit a list of massive challenges – and no clear vision from the past four years as to how to tackle them.