No cabinet post is as critical to the integrity of the nation’s parks, its open spaces and its animal species. Mr. Obama, and his environmental adviser in chief, Carol Browner, must be prepared to offer Mr. Salazar full support, especially in fending off the ranchers and the oil, gas, mining and other special interests who have always found the Interior Department to be a soft target, never more so than in the Bush administration.
Mr. Salazar’s most urgent task will be to remove the influence of politics and ideology from decisions that are best left to science.
Just as Mr. Salazar’s name was surfacing for the job, Earl Devaney, currently the department’s inspector general, reported to Congress that on 15 separate occasions the department’s political appointees had weakened protections for endangered species against the advice of the agency’s scientists, whose work they either ignored or distorted.
This sort of meddling has become standard operating procedure. Julie MacDonald, a former deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, resigned last year after an earlier report found that she had run roughshod over agency scientists and violated federal rules by giving internal documents to industry lobbyists.
Mr. Salazar’s second big task will be to achieve a rational balance between the department’s oil and gas leasing program and its obligation to protect environmentally sensitive lands and the wildlife that depend on them. Reconciling energy and environmental demands has never been easy, but some interior secretaries — notably Bruce Babbitt, who served under President Bill Clinton — have proceeded with greater care than others.
Mr. Bush’s Interior Department, driven largely by Vice President Dick Cheney’s drill-here, drill-now energy strategy, has aggressively issued new leases and drilling permits in areas that not only deserve to be left alone but that also, even if fully exploited, would add only marginally to the nation’s energy supply.
The third big task will be to deal with departmental corruption, some of it extending back many years.
In September, the industrious Mr. Devaney delivered three reports to Congress detailing widespread corruption in the Minerals Management Service, the division responsible for granting offshore oil leases and collecting royalties. According to Mr. Devaney, officials accepted gifts, steered contracts to favored clients and engaged in drugs and sex with oil company employees.
“Short of a crime,” Mr. Devaney said, “anything goes at the Department of the Interior.”
He referred, of course, to personal behavior. But the department’s failings go beyond that to its coziness with the industries it is sworn to regulate, its reckless assault on the country’s natural resources and its abuse of science. Mr. Salazar has his work cut out for him.