Two major legacies of Ken Salazar’s
four years as secretary of interior
by Allen Best
(This piece first appeared in the March 16 issue of The Denver Post).
Reviews of Ken Salazar’s tenure as secretary of Interior have focused on energy, and rightly so. By any measure, what is sometimes called the federal government’s “Department of Everything Else” is a major player in oil, natural gas and coal, plus wind and other emerging renewables. It administers one-fifth of all land in the United States.
Yet if you listen to the fossil-fuel folks, Salazar won’t be named Person of the Year anytime soon. You’d think he personally folded every drilling rig in the Rockies. Far from it. In that, he wore both white and black hats, the compromise that we’re all part of.
But Salazar’s more significant legacies may be in the dimensions of greenbelts and open space preservation — not just in the remote public lands, but in urban areas, too. A significant step in a more holistic operation of the Colorado River also occurred during his tenure.
In a speech Salazar gave at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in 2009, he mentioned the idea of a greenway connecting the arsenal and Rocky Flats, one already a wildlife refuge and the other on its way. Living in Arvada, which is between the two, I was puzzled: Arvada has houses cheek by jowl. Where exactly was this greenbelt going to be? When I called regional and local planning offices, I got the verbal equivalent of blank stares.
Now, the idea is maturing. Returning to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge last month, Salazar and other federal officials announced $1.7 million in funds for further development of the trails and links.
Afterward, I asked him how much his boyhood in the San Luis Valley informed this and other projects in America’s Great Outdoors. “Everything,” he said as he walked away. “The land, the sky, the water … .”
The national program is obviously modeled on Great Outdoors Colorado, which Salazar helped assemble as an aide to Colorado Gov. Roy Romer in the 1990s, but with one big difference: The Colorado program has lottery money to spend for conservation easements, parks and trails. The federal government emphasizes partnerships among multiple jurisdictions to conceive broader visions of conservation and access to the natural world.
After consultations with state governments, two were chosen for each state. They ranged from a city park in Las Vegas to an effort in Montana to connect the Yellowstone ecosystem with Glacier National Park.
Colorado got three projects: expanded preservation efforts along the Yampa River watershed; an effort in the San Luis Valley to protect wildlife resources and wetland habitat; and the Rocky Mountain Greenway, linking the two former Cold War installations, the arsenal and Rocky Flats, along with a smaller national wildlife refuge, Two Ponds in Arvada.
In making this one of his primary initiatives, Salazar was seeing a big picture and thinking long-term. We have been rapidly carving the landscape. Of all the land developed in the United States since its founding, according to a Department of Agriculture report, one-third of development occurred between 1982 and 2007. More than 80 percent of Americans now live in cities, towns or other urban areas.
Cities offer much, but after living in smallish mountain towns for several decades, I often feel a nagging loss in metro Denver at finding so few places to get my feet muddy. Nature is manicured or detached.
Author Richard Louv has addressed this disconnection. “All of life is rooted in nature, and a separation from that wider world desensitizes and diminishes our bodies and spirits,” he writes in his latest book, “The Nature Principle.”
When children are allowed opportunities to explore the natural world, says Louv, they are more likely to feel connected to their community and to develop a sense of stewardship for the Earth’s resources.
A place of beauty
Pre-existing paths incorporated into the Rocky Mountain greenway cannot be confused with wilderness. You stroll through the Sunco oil refinery, past Xcel’s Cherokee coal-fired power plant, and along an interstate highway. Still, you can also scare up blue herons and perhaps much more. The late Joe Shoemaker left Denver a better place for his vision in the 1960s of the South Platte River as a place of beauty, not of disgust. So will future generations across the country benefit from the greenway seeds Salazar’s program at Interior is now planting.
Mexico and the Colorado River
Salazar also has a large legacy in the Colorado River, where again, this work in Washington flowed from his prior experience as a water attorney and then administrator in Colorado government. Under his supervision, a broader, forward-looking vision for the Colorado River has been shaped.
“What I think he brought was the need to look at the river as a full and complete system, from top to bottom, instead of its component parts.” says Chris Treese, external affairs director for the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District.
Originating in Rocky Mountain National Park, the river and its tributaries flows through seven states before entering Mexico. Compacts struck first in 1922 and then in 1948 apportioned water among the states, but a treaty, approved in 1944, further allocates 1.5 million acre-feet annually to Mexico.
The river is docile before it reaches Mexico and becomes anorexic once there. The new treaty amendment, called Minute 319, gives Mexico incentives to conserve water by providing storage in Lake Mead, near Las Vegas. Mexico itself has almost no reservoirs.
The most immediate impact to Coloradans may be a future of slightly higher water levels for recreation in Lake Powell. But Mexico’s water might slow the time of a compact curtailment, which would require newer water rights in the Colorado Basin — including those that supply Denver and most other Front Range cities and farms — from curtailing diversions in order to allow delivery of water to lower-basin states as specified by the 1922 Colorado River Compact.
“I think this agreement is foundational,” says Jennifer Pitt, director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Colorado River Project. “It goes from an old way of doing business, which divides water, to a new way,” she says. That new way, she adds, provides flexibility going into an era of even greater uncertainties in supplies.
Taylor Hawes, the Colorado River Program director for The Nature Conservancy, further points out that the agreement provides a way for Mexico to share its water in drier times. The original treaty promised Mexico 1.5 million acre-feet no matter what kind of drought is occurring in Colorado and other headwaters states.
This new vision is not the work of one individual or even one presidential administration. An era of limits on the Colorado River has been recognized since at leas the 1990s, and all the Interior secretaries since then, including Coloradan Gale Norton, have taken steps.
By virtue of the federal dams from Glen Canyon on down, the secretaries figuratively have their hands on the release gates. But it’s a role also of working with the states — and now Mexico.
Salazar “very much understood that the federal government was completely limited and unable to resolve the issues around Mexico without involvement of the states,” says Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Las Vegas-based South Nevada Water Authority.
Salazar’s various career steps, plus his origins on a ranch in one of Colorado’s driest valleys, she said, aided “his ability to connect with people necessary to make these discussion and bring this to fruition.”
Denver Water chief executive Jim Lochhead has spent several decades working Colorado River matters. He sees the firm hand of Salazar on the agreement. “You can feel Ken’s passion when you talk to him, and he transmits that passion into the work that he does,” says Lochhead.
“He’s famous for being hard-working and relentless in the expectations of the people who work for him. He is goal- oriented, in that once he determines that there’s a direction he wants to go, he actually wants to achieve something.”
Compared to the fights over drilling and oil shale, these stories don’t have sharp edges.
But they’re important seeds nonetheless, not to be overlooked as a legacy of Salazar’s frenetic four years in Washington’s “Department of Everything Else.”