Later that morning, he visits Ovando's Stray Bullet Café. The wood-sided building has hosted a general store, a liquor store and an outfitter in its 130 years. The sandwiches are named for guns, like the Colt 45 (pastrami) and the Remington (roast beef). If Salazar's public comments at today's events so far have been laconic and to the point, he seems even more guarded as he sits down with a reporter to answer questions. He lights up, though, as a local rancher comes over to shake his hand and tell him about the nesting trumpeter swans on his farm -- a species that the Fish and Wildlife Service considers "sensitive" in the region. "Let me see your hands again," Salazar asks the man. "I love these," he says, grasping the calloused, dirt-stained fingers again. "You see these hands? These are the hands of the salt of the earth.
"These are my people," he adds. They "have common sense and they're very practical about the world."
The "common sense" he derived from his own childhood on a ranch in south-central Colorado's San Luis Valley has been essential to his job, he says. The way he says the phrase gives the distinct impression that he thinks it's in short supply in Washington these days.
The ranch he mentions so fondly and frequently comprises 210 acres and sits less than 20 miles north of the New Mexico border. His great-grandfather, Phillip Cantu, first settled there in 1860, and the Salazars still ranch and farm there. The family has a long history in the region; Juan de la Salazar arrived from Spain in 1543. Juan's son helped found the city of Santa Fe 50 years later, and the Salazars consider themselves 12th-generation Latino Americans. Ken's parents, Henry and Emma Salazar, raised eight children in a three-bedroom house with an indoor bathroom but no running water, his brother John recalls. The family was "very, very poor," but "we always had enough food, and we always had a lot of work." Their grandmother shared the house, and the children shared the chores, chasing sheep and growing alfalfa. John and Ken, two years apart, were third and fourth in line.
Ken Salazar's Colorado ties are still strong. He and his wife, Hope, raised their two daughters, Melinda and Andrea, in Denver, but made frequent trips to the ranch. Andrea became pregnant unexpectedly while still an undergraduate, and the Salazars took in her daughter, Mireya, so Andrea could finish school. Hope and Mireya came with Salazar to Washington when he was confirmed as Interior secretary in 2009. But in February 2010, doctors diagnosed the little girl as autistic. Hope and Mireya, now three and a half, returned to Colorado so she could attend a specialized school and receive one-on-one therapy at home. The separation has been hard on the family. Salazar now rents a small apartment in northwest Washington, D.C., and calls home to talk to his granddaughter almost every night. "She's the great joy of our lives," he says. He tries to visit Colorado at least every two weeks, "but there are times when three weeks pass, and I won't be able to make it back."
Indeed, he sets a brisk pace, spending a couple weeks on the road most months. In just the four days before the Montana trip, he announced a new draft environmental analysis for offshore wind in the Mid-Atlantic; made two recommendations of U.S. sites to add to the United Nations' World Heritage List; urged Congress to preserve Manhattan Project sites in New Mexico, Washington state and Tennessee as a national park; announced four new renewable energy projects on public lands in California and Oregon, and rolled out the Landscape Stewards program, a private-public partnership for community conservation work.
Even his "fishing trip" to Kalispell, Mont., after he visited Ovando was planned down to the minute. At 3:05 p.m., he toured the Creston National Fish Hatchery with students from the Northwest Montana Native Youth Conservation Corps and the Montana Conservation Corps. At 4:05 p.m., he visited a local shop to buy a Montana fishing license. At 4:45 p.m., he stopped by the Pine Grove Family Fishing Pond, where he was actually supposed to have a few minutes to fish. (His staff reports that he did cast his line a few times.)
Salazar's brother John believes he was always destined for a career in public service, although he didn't realize it at first. Salazar got a degree in political science from Colorado College and took a year off to work on the ranch before heading to the University of Michigan for law school, where he graduated in 1981. After several years in private practice, he was asked to serve as chief legal counsel to Colorado's Democratic Gov. Roy Romer. "I said to him, 'I'll do it, but I'll only do it for a year, because I don't want to be in politics, and I don't want to be in government,' " Salazar recalls. But one year became two, then four. In 1990, Romer appointed Salazar director of the Department of Natural Resources. "He had a public-servant value about him," recalls Stewart Bliss, a semi-retired business consultant in Denver who served then as Romer's chief of staff. "He sets very high standards, he's dedicated to excellence, and he holds his people to those same high standards." Salazar went on to serve six years as Colorado's attorney general.
The Salazar brothers entered the U.S. Congress together in 2005, John in the House and Ken in the Senate. John served for six years, but after losing his re-election bid in 2010, he was glad to leave D.C.'s partisanship behind and return to Colorado, where he's now commissioner of Agriculture. Ken served four years before accepting President Obama's offer of the Interior position. Both brothers, conservative Democrats, were inclined to put pragmatism ahead of party during their tenure. "Sometimes we anger our party quite a bit, and sometimes we anger the other side," says John, "and I think that's the way Ken's always approached his politics."