The man beneath the hat: Ken Salazar's search for middle ground

  • U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar wore one of his trademark hats Jan. 20, 2011, while speaking to reporters at the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

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  • Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., center, then the nominee for Secretary of the Interior, is greeted by his brother Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., right, and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., before his confirmation hearing with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Jan. 15, 2009.

    Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images
  • The Salazar family ranch, in Colorado’s San Luis Valley.

    The Salazar family
  • The seven living Salazar siblings with their mother. From left: LeRoy, Margaret, June, mother Emma, Elliott, John, Ken. Front: Elaine.

    The Salazar family

Nearly every story about Ken Salazar mentions his cowboy hat. It's hard not to; there aren't a lot of politicians or bureaucrats -- particularly Democrats -- in D.C. who can get away with wearing one and not come off as a wannabe. Today, though, Salazar's white hat and blue, pearl-buttoned ranch shirt fit right in. It's an overcast July morning, and the Colorado native is surrounded by local ranchers and farmers atop a hillside on the Rolling Stone Ranch near Ovando, Mont., in the heart of the Blackfoot Valley. A carpet of fescue dotted with lupine rustles in the breeze, and the green-cloaked mountains of the Bob Marshall Wilderness rise in the distance. A few lowing cattle provide the soundtrack.

Salazar is here to discuss how ranchers and farmers can work with federal agencies to preserve their open land while staying in business. This 2,600-acre ranch was one of the first to be protected this way, in collaboration with landowners and federal, state and local government officials. Launched in 1993, that partnership -- the Blackfoot Challenge -- has protected 285,000 acres through federal and private acquisitions and conservation easements, to help threatened species like bull trout and grizzly bears, while avoiding the bitter disputes that often arise when the federal government takes a top-down approach to conservation. Salazar hopes to use the Blackfoot Valley as a template for his work in the Interior Department, promoting the approach in South Dakota's grasslands, Florida's Everglades and Kansas' Flint Hills.

Salazar is nothing if not a measured man, as today's event demonstrates. He speaks slowly and deliberately, throwing in colloquial quips. His policies tend to be equally moderate, and it's hard to get him to say anything remotely controversial. More than one reporter has wondered if he's intentionally boring in public. That's probably another reason every story about Salazar relies on his hat for color; it's usually the only showy thing about him. He looks shorter, and thinner, without it. It's hard to picture him putting a boot to anyone's neck, as he threatened to do to BP at the height of the 2010 Gulf Coast oil spill. Even the policies that most rankle his Republican critics have hardly been radical. In his three years as secretary, though, he's watched the middle ground shift radically beneath him. His work at Interior often seems to be an endless exercise in trying to find it once again.

You can tell the struggle is wearing on him by the wistfulness with which he discusses the West. When asked whether he would spend a second term at Interior, his response is vague. "I'm there for the foreseeable future," he says. "Looking beyond that, I don't know."