Can Interior Sec. Ken Salazar Win Over Critics?

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar wasn't an instant hit with environmentalists, who said the former Colorado attorney general was soft on the Endangered Species Act, climate change and other important issues. Could some of his first moves soften the opposition? Last week Salazar halted Bush administration leases of federal lands to energy developers and promised a critical review of outstanding leases. And he denounced ethics scandals that broke last fall, including the revelation that some department employees had exchanged drugs and sexual favors with employees of several energy companies that lease public lands.

In an interview with NEWSWEEK's Daniel Stone and Daren Briscoe, Salazar suggested critics get to know his record better, and he promised to put science first. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: A broad collection of wildlife advocacy groups opposed your nomination, saying your record doesn't show a strong-enough stance on species protection.
Salazar: I'm not here to please the environmental groups or the oil and gas industries. I'm here to do the right thing. The fact that there's criticism from the left and the right is something I'm very used to. Those environmental groups should educate themselves on the work I have done. In Colorado, I created the most significant state land conservation program in the history of the United States that restored and protected river corridors, which is basically protecting species. I've been involved in crafting programs to recover endangered fish in the Colorado River system. I was one of the architects in crafting an agreement to recover the whooping crane in Nebraska. I have a history of having stood up to recover species in a way that's real.

You say you will value science more than your predecessors. What does that mean?
There are a number of pods within the department where there are scientists who do their work without a political agenda. Their work has to be honored. It starts with the Fish and Wildlife Service on the endangered-species consultation process. They're the ones that ought to be making the call in terms of what kind of impact will be created as a result of whatever action will be taken. Secondly, we have the U.S. Geological Survey, coupled with the Bureau of Reclamation. They will be hugely helpful for us as we figure out in a real way how we'll address the reality of climate change. We have, in this department, a very strong group of scientists that have been working on these issues and collecting data for a very long time.

How was scientific research stifled in the past?
I think there was a movement on the part of the Bush administration to put political considerations ahead of science. I don't think there was the appropriate respect for the science generated from this department or other departments.

You canceled land leases for energy development this week. How will you proceed on the ones that remain?
We're doing the legal analysis on what all of our options are. Many of them create major concerns with respect to our national parks. We need to have the right balance relating to oil and gas.

You've also gotten criticism for not being vocal enough on global environmental issues.
People may not like me because I have a farming or ranching background, but so be it. Farmers and ranchers were the first stewards of the land because they understood, as I understand, that the less you take care of the land on which you intend to make a living, the harder it is to keep it sustainable generation after generation. That's the kind of ethos that will guide me as I manage the Department of the Interior.

You've said that you didn't inherit a clean department, referring to past ethics scandals. How do you plan to clean it up?
We are looking at things that have happened in the department the last eight years. We're looking for things that need to be righted. Before we work on energy and lands and species, we have to first take care of this department and make sure we clean up the mess and make sure we restore trust and integrity to the American people in this department. We'll continue to turn over every stone.

Do you regret supporting Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who led the department during many of those scandals?
The truth is that I do. I've never said it. Frankly, I think that this agency ended up being run with a very narrow agenda out of the White House, mostly from the vice president. I don't think that's the way in which the huge responsibilities that have been assigned to this department for almost two centuries should be managed.