All photos courtesy of Senator Salazar Senator Ken Salazar

Okay, Ken Salazar opposed saving the black-tailed prairie dog. But give President-elect Barack Obama’s choice to head up the Interior Department a break.

After eight years of the Bush Administration’s using Interior to enrich its friends in the energy business, obliterate huge swaths of landscape – see the Upper Green River Valley — short-change us on oil and gas royalties, endanger endangered species, and gut environmental laws, Senator Salazar (D. Colo) may well be Wyoming’s last, best hope.

Indeed, no cabinet post is more critical to Wyoming than the one to which Salazar has been appointed. If approved, the 53-year-old, fifth-generation Coloradoan will be responsible for a broad portfolio of services that bears on every aspect of Wyoming’s economy and environment. Interior encompasses the Bureau of Land Management; the National Park Service; the Bureau of Reclamation (which has been involved with the management and conservation of the state’s water resources since Teddy Roosevelt was president); Minerals and Management Services (which collects and distributes the state’s energy royalties); the Bureau of Mines; the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.


So who is Ken Salazar and what kind of a DOI chief will he be?

For starters, he’s an honest-to-god westerner. This, he made evident by wearing his signature ten-galloon white Stetson and a bolo tie when introduced to the press as the new Interior appointee. His deep western roots give Salazar immediate credibility with some of the state’s political and environmental leaders.
colorado senator

“Senator Salazar is a neighbor who knows the issues facing the west,” Republican U.S. Senator John Barrasso, Wyoming’s junior senator told WyoFile. “As members of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Senator Salazar and I came together on issues important to our states. We worked on legislation that protects western resources and to ensure that certain priorities of our states are met. I look forward to discussing Senator Salazar’s views about issues important to Wyoming during the confirmation process.”

“Senator Salazar is someone who understands the West,” adds Laurie Milford, executive director of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “He recognizes the value of a balanced energy policy, which includes responsible natural gas production on many of our public lands, while at the same time respecting local communities when they identify areas that are too special to drill.”


As one of the few people in Congress who has genuine agricultural bona fides — his older brother, Democratic Colorado Congressman John. T. Salazar, can make the same claim — Salazar is viewed as a champion of ranching and farming interests. “I’m very pleased he has a background in ranching,” says Jim Magagna, Executive Vice President of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. “On issues such as public land grazing this can be very helpful. He’s always been supportive of public land grazing. I wouldn’t anticipate our agreeing on everything, but on this issue we clearly can relate.”

Salazar was born March 2, 1955 in Alamosa, Colorado. His ancestors helped found Santa Fe, New Mexico 400 years ago, then moved north to Colorado’s San Luis Valley where they have farmed and ranched the same land ever since.

The San Luis Valley

Salazar’s parents both served in World War II: his mother, Emma M., in the War Department in Washington, DC and his father Henry (Enrique) in the U.S. Army as a staff sergeant. The war over, they returned to their remote ranch — no electricity, no phone – and produced eight kids.

Reared a Roman Catholic, Salazar attended St. Francis Seminary and Centauri High School in Conejos County, graduating in 1973. He later attended Colorado College, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science in 1977, and received his Juris Doctor from the University of Michigan’s law school in 1981. In Alamosa, he practiced water and environmental law while he and his spouse, Hope, owned and operated several small businesses, including a radio station and Dairy Queen.

Once Salazar moved into the public sector, first as chief legal counsel for Gov. Roy Romer, then as director of the Colorado Department of National Resources and later as the state attorney general, he quickly gained the reputation of being a pragmatic and effective conservationist and administrator.

“He excelled at everything he did each step along the way,” says Michael Chiropolos, Lands Program Director, Western Resource Advocates, Boulder, Colo. “I have nothing but good things to say about him.”


In one of his first acts as Colorado’s attorney general, Salazar showed he wouldn’t hesitate to shake up the status quo. In a move that may bode well for managing an Interior Department that’s been beset by corruption and ineptitude, Salazar had all the deputy attorneys general and department staff turn in letters of resignation. “Nobody actually got fired as I recall, but Salazar made everyone justify their existence and set goals for the next ten years,” Chiropolos says.

In 2004, Salazar won the Senate seat that had been vacated when Ben Nighthorse Campbell decided not to run for a third term. Entering Congress in the same freshman class as Barack Obama, he and his brother John both later campaigned hard for Obama in Colorado, a swing state, touting alternative energy development as a means to rejuvenate Colorado’s rural economies.

In the Senate, Salazar urged the Forest Service to boost spending to fight the bark beetle epidemic and was largely viewed as a supporter of wilderness protection, off road vehicle limits and strong water quality protection. His position on shale development has been proceed-with-caution, yet he also won praise from oil and mining interests for what they characterized as his reasoned, non-doctrinaire approach. Salazar has supported Wyoming-related legislation such as the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, a bill to withdraw from leasing certain federal land in the Wyoming Range and to retire other range leases.

At the same time, Salazar has been severely criticized by some environmental groups such as the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

“The Department of the Interior desperately needs a strong, forward looking, reform-minded Secretary,” the group’s executive director Kieran Suckling said in a December 16 news release. “Unfortunately, Ken Salazar is not that man.” Among Salazar’s failings, according to Suckling:

  • fought federal action on global warming
  • voted against increased fuel efficiency standards
  • voted against the repeal of tax breaks for Exxon-Mobil
  • voted for subsidies to ranches and other users of public land
  • and, yes, as Colorado AG, he threatened to sue US Fish and Wildlife when its scientists determined the black-tailed prairie dog may be endangered.

“There’s been some concern voiced that Salazar is not always making decisions based on good science,” says Western Resource Advocates’ Chiropolos. “But he’s extremely well informed and quickly gets up to speed.”

Chiropolos believes Salazar’s tenure will resemble that of former Clinton Administration Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in that Salazar, like Babbitt, knows politics, uses horse sense and diplomacy to push his agendas, but remains a forceful, environmental advocate.

“Obviously, Salazar can’t please all environmental interests, but you’ve got to remember that Babbitt was met with bullhorns when he came through Boulder,” says Chiropolos. And, of course, Babbitt approaches the gold standard in terms of evaluating interior secretaries over the past few decades. The low point probably came under the infamous James Watt, a Wyomingite who served during the Reagan administration from 1981-83.

With Salazar adapting what Chiropolos calls “the Babbitt game plan,” Wyoming environmentalists are hopeful.

“In Colorado, Senator Salazar supports protection of the Roan Plateau and has worked hard to establish the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area and Wilderness,” says Laurie Milford of the Outdoor Council. “We hope these positions indicate that Secretary Salazar will help us protect equally special places in Wyoming, like Adobe Town, the Jack Morrow Hills, and the Wyoming Range where the BLM manages the minerals.”


“He’s a man who understands what ‘balance’ means between natural gas development and safeguarding the Valley’s abundant wildlife and air and water resources and protecting local communities.,” says Linda Baker of the Upper Green River Coalition. “I’ve got great hope.”

Baker concedes that, unfortunately, hope and balance may never be enough to restore the Pinedale region which is currently beset by rapidly deteriorating air quality, ground water contamination, huge wildlife losses and vast tracts of no-longer- useable land – all the result of rampant natural gas exploitation. “So much egregious stuff has been going on around here for the past eight years that much of the damage can’t be reversed,” says Baker.

More about author Laton McCartney

Laton McCartney was born in Denver, Colorado and grew up on cattle ranches in Colorado and Wyoming. He is the author of the national bestseller, Friends in High Places: The Bechtel Story—The Most Secret...