Voices of Power: Ken Salazar

Interview of Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday May 17, 2009


ROMANO: Welcome, Salazar, President Obama's new Interior.

You have got a lot on your plate, so let's get at it. Let's start with David Hayes, your pick to be Deputy , and then your former colleagues in the Senate are blocking it. Tell us what's going on with that.

SALAZAR: We have taken a major effort in this department to clean up the mess, and there was a mess that was left here by the prior administration, and it essentially revolves around a perspective around here that the laws were to be skirted, and the consequence of that is that we're dealing with many decisions that have had to be revisited.

The District--the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decision on the Outer Continental Shelf, that's a D.C. Circuit Court and a conservative judge writing an opinion that the plan that was issued in 2007 for the 1.75 billion acres of the Outer Continental Shelf was legally defective, legally flawed. There are hundreds of examples of things like that that have happened.

The oil and gas leases in the State of Utah are an example of that. There was a United States District Court that enjoined the issuance of those leases. And so it's in the context of cleaning up the mess and bringing about change and a new direction that there has been a swing back by some in the Republican Party, where they have decided that, you know, someone who is a fine person, who is very qualified to be Secretary of Interior, who's been confirmed by the Senate before for this position, and who was frankly recommended to this position by Republicans and Democrats together in the United States Senate, and now they're in a position where they are filibustering him because they don't like the fact that we are bringing about change in this department.

ROMANO: You sounded a little angry the other day, and I can see you're getting--you're a little angry now. I mean, you feel like they're playing some politics with this man, with Mr. Hayes.

SALAZAR: The elections are over in November of last year--okay?--and President Obama won. I think this president should be entitled to have his picks, with the advice and consent of the Senate; I understand their very important role. But when President Bush was elected, when we in the Senate--when I was there went through and helped him get his appointees confirmed, there were many times where I helped make sure that that happened, and I think there should be deference to a president and a new administration to basically be able to stand up the government. It is the President's choice.

ROMANO: So the issue is that you've pulled back on some of these leases in Utah because they're too close to national parks; correct?

SALAZAR: They're too close to national parks and other national historic sites including Nine-Mile Canyon.

ROMANO: Are you reconsidering this at all in light of the fact that they've thrown up these barriers to his confirmation? Reconsidering the leases?

SALAZAR: No. I am reconsidering the leases in the context of my decision but not because of whatever it is that is going on in the Senate today.

When I announced my decision on the 77 lease parcels in Utah, it was in the context of a United States District Court having enjoined the issuance of those leases. I made the determination that I was going to pull back on those leases and basically call a time-out so that I could review what had happened and make a decision on how to move forward.

It may well be that when the review is completed, that I will be able to put some of those leases--maybe all of them--back on the auction block; I don't know.

ROMANO: A law suit has been filed, and in the context of the lawsuit, it says that some of these areas are not that close to national parks. Were you misinformed or--it says that some of them are just 15 miles away and--60 miles away.

SALAZAR: The fact of the matter is that there were times when there were a whole bunch of other leases that were included--okay?--and the practice that had been established for a long time in this department which is a practice of consultation between the BLM and the National Park Service was simply not honored, and that's because there was such a headlong rush to issue oil and gas leases everywhere across the entire landscape of America and then to the Outer Continental Shelf, and it was done with reckless abandonment of the law. And I don't think that that's appropriate. We're not going to stand for it, and we're going to move forward, do the proper review. And at the end of the day, if it makes sense to move forward with the issuance of these leases we will. If it makes sense not to do so because the law or the environmental concerns require us not to do so, that's a decision that we will make.

ROMANO : So what happens? What's the next step on Mr. Hayes?

SALAZAR: You know, I hope that he does get confirmed. I will not formally start the review of the Utah lease sales or be able to move forward with other priority items of this department without a deputy . So, I think that people who are being obstructionists about this essentially are just keeping us from doing the work related to the people of this country and to their particular states.

ROMANO: One of the people that are being obstructionist about this is Senator Bennett of Utah. So, once this all passes--and I'm told by Senator Reed's office that Mr. Hayes will get confirmed--what happens then with your relationship with Mr. Bennett?

SALAZAR: I love Bob Bennett. He is a good friend of mine. We have traveled outside of this country before I know--he and his wife, Joyce, I know them well. So we will--you know, we will move forward in the context of what I think is a positive and constructive relationship. I have great respect for him. I have great respect for Lisa Murkowski as well. I think they have their own political issues that they're dealing with back home, and hopefully they will see their way through those issues. And at the end of the day, we have an agenda, really, to try to bring this country together. You know, that's my agenda for Utah. That's my agenda for Alaska--my agenda for every state.

And we have a lot to do in Utah. You know, we have major investments that we've made in the national parks in Utah, including investments from the Recovery Act. We have the Central Utah Project; that is a major priority for this department to move forward with and get completed.


ROMANO: President Obama: What was your relationship with him in the Senate?

SALAZAR: It was a good relationship. You know, Barack is a wonderful human being, and he and I were the only two Democrats to win a U.S. Senate race in 2004. That was a very difficult year for Democrats. George Bush had a very high rating in the polls. Democrats were defeated across the country in races where conservative Republicans were elected. Barack Obama won in Illinois. I won in Colorado. I still remember the very first meeting that we had at the White House with George Bush, Dick Cheney, Andy Card, Karl Rove, and I think that--those were all in the room, and there were nine of us in that class. I think it was seven Republicans and we were the only two Democrats. So, you know, I think because we were the only two Democrats and because he came out to help me in my campaign in 2004 in Colorado, you know, we've been close. We came to Washington together as freshmen. I think we were both, you know, new to Washington, D.C. You know, we were both looking at places to find to rent in this high-rent market, and by coincidence we ended up living on the same floor in the same place in Washington for the first couple years.

ROMANO: Is that right? Oh, so that's very interesting. So you guys did bond. Did you commute together?

SALAZAR: We did not commute together. We have--you know, he had his own schedule of Senators that I--we were on different committees with the exception of Veterans Affairs. He and I were both on Veterans Affairs.

He was number 99 in the Senate and I was number 100. And the reason that that came about is because Illinois--he and I were tied for seniority in the last place, and under the rules of the Senate, when you have that kind of a tie, they determine seniority based on the population of the state. Because Illinois is bigger than Colorado, he became number 99; I became number 100.

ROMANO: You come over here, and you're really in charge of 500 million acres of public land; is that correct? One-fifth of the U.S. land mass?

SALAZAR: Yes….It will be an agenda that takes care of the landscapes of America in a similar fashion that Teddy Roosevelt did when he created the National Wildlife Refuge System and created the foundations for the modern national park system. So we're working on putting those pieces together. We have a great start through the Lands bill that the President signed a month ago. We have the--major investments, so we've made through the Economic Recovery Program on National Parks, and we're working on a whole host of other initiatives for the future--so treasured landscapes.

Third, youth and creating what I call a 21st century civilian conservation corps. This summer we will have 15,000 young people already working here in the Department of Interior all across the landscapes of America.

Four, empowering our Native American communities. It's very important for us because within the Native American communities we have huge problems with law enforcement, rampant lawlessness across reservations, and also a huge education and economic development issue. That's a responsibility of this department. We intend to work on that.

And finally, we will do our part in terms of helping work through some of the water issues that confront the country in places like the bay delta in California or, you know, the southeastern part of the United States.

ROMANO: The conservation corps that you mentioned? Is that going to be similar to what Roosevelt did in the '30s?

SALAZAR: It will be the modern manifestation of that. We--it will be different because it will reflect the realities of today, of 2109--or 2009. But we will have young people helping us doing trail maintenance, working in our facilities in parks, in wildlife refuges, in all of our bureaus across the country.

We also will do a lot in terms of reaching out to young people to get them connected to the outdoors, so we have a $50 million initiative in the 2010 budget, $30 million of which will go to help young people get into outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing.

ROMANO: Is this volunteer or are these jobs?

SALAZAR: It will be both. Some of it will be volunteer efforts, coming in and working with some of our partners who we're identifying around the country. Some of it will actually be paying people to come in work with us in the department as seasonal. Real jobs.

These 15,000 are real jobs where people will actually get paid.

ROMANO: For the first time since 9/11, you're opening the dome to the Statue of Liberty?

ROMANO: How did you come to do that, and how come it took so long to reopen that?

SALAZAR: I wanted to, at the outset of my time here with the President and his department, make sure that people understood that this was a department of America--the entire country. And we--you know, in some cases, the department is misunderstood. It's looked at as a department only of the West, and yet we have, you know, 400 units in our national park system in 49 states. The only one that we don't have a unit in today is the State of Delaware, okay? We have wildlife refuges in at least 49 states, maybe even now 50 with Kentucky; I think Kentucky may be the only one that we don't. We have Indian reservations where we have a unique responsibility and relationship with Indian tribes all over this country.

And so my decision in the first day that I was here was to try to go to someplace that really represented all of America, and I can't think of a more iconic representation of what America is all about than the Statue of Liberty. …..I took a strong interest in that, looked at what the recommendations were from the experts, and based on the recommendation of the National Park Service, made a decision that we could put certain investments into life-safety issues and make it a safe place, minimize the risk for injury, and move forward with it. So we're opening it on the 4th of July.

ROMANO: And there's still some security concerns?

SALAZAR : You'll have basically 10 going up one staircase, 10 in the crown at any time, and then 10 coming down. And so there'll be about 30 that will be able to move through the statue per hour, which if you calculate that based on the number of hours that we are open at the Statue of Liberty, which is--I think it's 364 days a year, we will be able to get about 50,000 people through on an average year.

ROMANO: And are there some enhanced security measures that are being put in place?

SALAZAR: They--there is a screening of people who will go to the island, screening of people who will go into the statue including the same kind of screening people go through when they go into airport, through airport security, through TSA.


ROMANO: You asked DOJ to overturn the Bush administration's rule that loosened debris dumping regulations on mountaintop coal mining?

SALAZAR: My view is that putting a label on something like the stream buffer protection rule doesn't make it live up to the label, and essentially the language of the Bush regulation essentially allowed mining to occur with debris to simply be deposited in the headwaters of some of our streams, and I don't think that's the appropriate way to go.

It was a reversal of the Reagan era. James Watt, mountaintop mining regulation had been in place since 1983, which is still enforced in 49 of the 50 states, and yet that wasn't good enough for the Bush administration. So they decided essentially to allow the mining companies to do whatever they wanted to in terms of dumping debris into streams. I don't think that was the correct way to go from a policy--or a point of view or the responsibilities of this department, so I reversed the rule.

And we're back, functioning under the 1983 rule.

ROMANO: It has been suggested in an editorial that a lot of heads have to roll here. The place has to really shake up and that you are too nice, maybe, to do it. Are you too nice?

SALAZAR: I think that anybody who looks at my record will find out that I may be nice but I'm--I think people will also tell you I'm tough as nails, and I have no problem in taking the right measures to make sure that this department is changed and that we get down to the bottom of some of the bad decisions that have happened here.

ROMANO: And I know you've made reforming the department a high priority.

SALAZAR: Reforming the department or cleaning up--and cleaning up the mess--in some ways they're the same thing. But first, there were many decisions that were made which essentially, I think, were a reckless abandonment of the law and environmental considerations. We have a more balanced approach to doing things.

ROMANO: Did you find when you got here a cozy relationship between industry and the department just generally? I mean, there had been some criticisms during the Bush years.

SALAZAR: Yeah, I think that the Department of Interior and its 70,000 employees are--have a very proud tradition, and I think that, you know, 99.9 percent of the employees here are great public servants that work very hard on behalf of the American people. The unfortunate legacy of the Bush administration is at the political level there were ethical lapses and illegal activity that occurred that created a blemish on this department probably like no other. And so when you have deputy secretaries who have been sent to prison, when you have criminal conduct that essentially has taken place in MMS. You know, there were problems here and so, you know, probably our greatest challenge is to restore the respect and confidence of the American people in the Department of Interior.

ROMANO: Okay I just--let me go back to 9/11 again. I'm looking--I want to ask you about the property in Pennsylvania. Why is it necessary to take that land for a monument by eminent domain? That seems to be a little controversial right now.

SALAZAR: I think the--9/11 was a national tragedy, and it's something that will--has forever changed our nation. Some of our heroes died on Flight 93 in that field in Pennsylvania, and I think it is a cherished place that has to be commemorated, and the families have decided that they would like it to be a national park, and we are in full agreement with them, and so we're going to make it happen in time for the opening for the 10th year anniversary of 9/11.

ROMANO: Why not just buy the houses from the people, though?

SALAZAR: We ultimately will, and we have tried and there have been negotiations underway, and those negotiations will continue, and ultimately I think the matters will be resolved to the satisfaction of all involved.

ROMANO: There was a poll--last summer--that said that 64 percent of Americans said they supported offshore drilling development. And 1.3 million people signed Newt Gingrich's "Drill here, Drill now." Given that the American population feels that way, will that impact, you know, moving forward, drilling policies, development policies in the Outer Continental Shelf or other areas?

SALAZAR: Oil and gas will be part of our comprehensive energy program, and that includes drilling, both on the onshore and on the offshore. Since I have been at Interior, we have had over 10 major leases--lease sales on the onshore that have covered over 1.5 million acres. We've had a major lease in the Gulf of Mexico with 1.7 million acres that have been leased. And so it is wrong for there to be a characterization that we're not being supportive of that agenda.

ROMANO: Did you have fun on Jon Stewart the other night?

SALAZAR: I did. Actually it was good to be on the show, and it was good to be at the Statue of Liberty the next morning.

ROMANO: Well, did you get anything done, though? Why go on someplace like Jon Stewart? I mean, who do you reach when you do that?

SALAZAR: There are a lot of young people, frankly, who are very motivated to learn more about government. I think that's one of the great things that's happening today in America, as you have a level of engagedness among young people. And the audience that Jon Stewart has is a young audience and they're part of the future of this department was the reason I decided to go on that show.

ROMANO: Are you seeing a larger commitment to service?

SALAZAR: Yeah, I mean--well, I see engagedness among young people, and I think it is up to us who are now in control of the levers of government to make sure that we take that engagedness and allow it to flower.

ROMANO: Great. Thank you very much. Appreciate your time.

SALAZAR: Thank you, Lois.


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