John remembers his younger brother once getting into so much trouble at the ranch that their mother spanked him. Ken retreated outside to sulk atop a pile of dirt. That pile of dirt, though, turned out to be an anthill. "They just bit him all over his back," John recalls.  "I think he learned his lesson, that you're not supposed to sit on top of ant piles -- maybe that's what's shaped his career."

At Interior, though, it appears that Salazar is having a harder time minding the anthills than he did in the Senate, mostly because of today's volatile political climate. He's dialed back some of his more ambitious policies, and taken a more surgical approach to new initiatives. At times, he's come across as indecisive or timid, even though his methods and centrist instincts don't seem to have changed.

The most vicious fight yet was over his "wild lands" program. In late 2010, Interior surprised everyone by announcing that its Bureau of Land Management would assess millions of acres -- including much-contested areas of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Idaho -- to determine which deserved wilderness protection. U.S. House Republicans revolted, declaring the move a "war on the West," and arguing that the creation of a category of wild lands separate from the traditional "wilderness areas" usually designated by Congress was illegal, even though the wild-lands designation was less restrictive, allowing the agency more discretion to determine permissible uses and development.

In April, Congress defunded the initiative in the budget deal that averted a government shutdown. In June, Salazar dodged the blockade by rescinding his order and pledging to work on "building consensus around locally-supported initiatives." The BLM would consult with Congress and stakeholders to decide which areas should be protected. "I didn't want the fight that was going on with wild lands to distract us from the more important conservation work that we're doing," he says. He's optimistic that the new plan will succeed; in November, the BLM recommended 18 new areas, most of which appear to have local support for wilderness protection, including California's Beauty Mountain, some coastal and forest areas of the San Juan Archipelago of Washington, and Colorado's Castle Peak. Some environmentalists panned the efforts as too paltry, but the usual conservative Republican critics were generally silent, and the often-combative Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican, even offered cautious praise at a recent committee hearing.

Interior has also tempered its approach to the development of renewable energy on public lands. In December 2010, Salazar announced 24 proposed large-scale "solar energy zones" in six Western states, totaling 677,000 acres. Environmentalists liked the idea of zoning, but worried that some of the areas would compromise wildlife habitat and that the plan would allow development on a massive amount of additional land, which would seem to defeat the idea of zones altogether. After 80,000 public comments, the agency released a revised plan in October that slashed the zoned acreage by more than half, cutting seven zones entirely. Some areas simply weren't appealing to developers, officials said, while others were dropped for conservation reasons.

On some issues, though, Salazar has maintained  a tough stance. In July 2009, he responded to a huge increase in new uranium claims around the Grand Canyon by issuing a two-year moratorium on new mining on a million acres surrounding the park. This October, his BLM announced it would extend that moratorium for 20 years. Up to 11 mines would be grandfathered in, but a number of House and Senate Republicans were infuriated and are trying to reverse the decision. "I don't know if any of my colleagues were consulted before this decision was made, but I sure as hell wasn't," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., complained in a press conference. The decision "open(ed) the doors for a new round of battles" on land use in the West, warned Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz.

Even now, such fierce opposition seems to catch Salazar off guard. He seems nostalgic for his less-quarrelsome days in the Senate, working in bipartisan "gangs" on the Iraq war, immigration, energy and other issues. Now, he says, "There's a lot of divisiveness and partisan rancor. And at least during the time that I was there, on a number of different things we were able to transcend that on some very difficult issues.

"Sometimes," he says, "I wonder if I were there today, the role that I could play in trying to bring the sides together."