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.

    AFP/Getty Images
  • 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."

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."

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."

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