Sunday, February 22, 2009
DURING SENATE confirmation hearings for Ken Salazar's nomination as interior secretary, much was made of the advantages of him being a Westerner. True, many of the issues confronting the department are rooted in the West, but its reach is nationwide. So it was refreshing to hear this fifth-generation Coloradan talk of a "department for all of America" and set forth an agenda that -- at last -- lists preservation of the Mall as a top priority.
"The Mall and the places along it are national icons . . . . We have a special responsibility," Mr. Salazar told us Thursday as he outlined an expansive mission for a department that saw a decline in ambition and stature during the eight years of the Bush administration. In addition to doing something about the deplorable condition of the Mall and other important American places, Mr. Salazar wants to assist President Obama in developing a new energy frontier. Also on the agenda are new opportunities for youth and better programs for Native Americans.
It will, of course, take money to undertake these initiatives, and already Mr. Salazar was dealt a setback when Congress sliced $200 million from the stimulus bill for repairs to the Mall. A lot of bunk was said about this being pork-barrel spending that would have done little more than plant new grass. In fact, the money would have gone to such things as shoring up the sinking seawall around the Jefferson Memorial and fixing sidewalks so tourists don't stomp on the delicate roots of the cherry trees. Some 25 million people visit the Mall each year, and deterred maintenance expenses are now estimated at $350 million.
Public-private partnerships can be part of the solution, but that requires Congress to meet its obligations. Having an interior secretary who so clearly sees what's at stake can only help. Mr. Salazar said: "When I think about 1.8 million people out there on Jan. 20, it's an incredible statement about our nation. . . . There's something very special about this place, something very special about the Mall, and it will be a very high priority for me."