The Man in the Hat

The first time I met Ken Salazar, the man Barack Obama has tapped as the next Secretary of Interior, he was the Attorney General for the state of Colorado.  That was in 1999 or thereabouts – well before he’d been told to glue that silly cowboy hat on his head so that everybody would know he was a true westerner, an old time westerner, a man bred of the land, comfortable in a saddle or behind the wheel of a pickup.

It used to be people were known by their words, not their props, but Paul Bremer with his suit and combat boots in Iraq and Ken Salazar with his screwed on cowboy hat want to employ a sartorial meta-language – you know their seriousness by seeing their props.

Watching how Salazar dealt with public resource issues back then gives me considerable pause as to whether he should be given legal control over one-fifth of the U.S. land area as Interior Secretary.  After reviewing a few of these accounts you will be able to understand my unease.

At that first meeting, we had come to him to ask for the release of engineering reports bearing on the water rights claims of the Ute Indians.  These claims would become a driving force behind construction of the long-stalled federal Animas-La Plata project – a $600 million boondoggle to sequester enough water for the domestic needs of more than a million people.  Among our concerns was that the Utes numbered only 3,000 people and already controlled over 150,000 acre feet of water, mostly from other federal projects.

Colorado’s Open Records Act requires state records to be made available within five working days of a request.  As Attorney General, Salazar was responsible for enforcing that law.   He told us he couldn’t release the engineering reports because he might have to someday protect the people of Colorado against the claims of the Utes.  The information in those records, he reasoned, might give an unfair advantage to them if made public.  The law would have to wait.  We were to find out much later that these reports had already been reviewed by an engineering consultant for the Indians.

Indeed, later still, in a private meeting, after we brought suit over the matter, we were told by Salazar’s office that we would never get any information from them.  Well, some heavily redacted records were eventually dribbled to us, but I think this incident provides a clear indication of how Salazar, left to his own devises, might live up to Obama’s promise of openness and accountability in his administration.

Another telling episode from that period was Attorney General Salazar’s involvement in the Summitville Mine Superfund cleanup.  Previously, Salazar’s mentor Governor Roy Romer had approved the gold mining operation at Summitville, arguing that jobs were needed.  To grease the startup, Romer had accepted the Canadian operator’s on-site equipment in lieu of a cash bond as required by state law.  It didn’t take long before the operation failed, dumping cyanide into the river and poisoning it for miles downstream.

Salazar announced he would personally lead negotiations with the Canadian mining company.  In the end, the taxpayers picked up virtually all of the millions of dollars in cleanup.  Salazar’s lack of success in negotiating with the mining company and failure to prosecute should have gotten more attention, but all the costs had been transferred to the United States, thus diluting the costs to the people of Colorado.

As AG, Salazar was also involved in a longstanding water case between Colorado and Kansas over the use of the Arkansas River, a case that had festered for years and certainly cannot be laid at Salazar’s feet entirely.   Up to now, the case has cost the taxpayers of Colorado approximately $50 million in penalties and attorney fees.  The U.S. Supreme Court in reaching its verdict against the state, and in awarding punitive damages, was scathing in its condemnation of Colorado’s actions, stating the Colorado knew or should have known for years that it was stealing water from Kansas.

Normally, when a person steals from another, the thief either goes to jail or makes restitution.  In the Arkansas River case, the public pays for the theft, while the actual thieves, a few hundred ranchers and farmers on the lower Arkansas, pay nothing.

In addition, Ken and his brother, John, support a large federal pipeline project to bring potable water to towns in the lower Arkansas valley because the agricultural return flows from these same thieving ranches are so polluted they reportedly make the river unsuitable as a source of public drinking water.  The preliminary costs of this pipeline are said to be between $200 and $300 million, with the public picking up the costs. Since most large federal water projects usually have cost overruns of up to 300 percent, this scheme, if funded, might actually cost up to a billion dollars.

In a rational economic world, we would expect the public’s representatives to first go to those causing the problem and tell them to stop, reform their operations, and pay a significant portion of the damages and remediation costs.  The public might be asked to participate, but only secondarily.  But that is not the way water in the West is governed, and it is not the way Salazar sees it.  He has a long history of supporting water development on a large scale at public expense.

He advertises himself as the senator for rural America even though, apparently unbeknownst to him, the state he represents is one of the most urbanized in the nation.  Neither does his self-description necessarily mean that he is an advocate for rural workers who are among the poorest of the working poor.

Instead of standing for rural interests, Salazar seems to be more an advocate for preserving old land and ranching interests.  Much is made of the fact he grew up in rural Colorado without electricity.  Less is made of the fact his family has received over $200,000 in farm subsidies over the last 10 years, with his brother, the congressman, being the chief beneficiary.  Not surprisingly, the Salazar brothers are stout defenders of these agri-business subsidies – a stance seemingly at odds with Obama’s promise to eliminate waste in government.

He has been praised lavishly for opposing the Bush administration’s drilling plans on some of the most valued wild land in the state, the Roan Plateau.  He did the right thing, no question, but it was also the easy thing since the plan was unpopular among most state voters.  It was not a high-risk endorsement.  In fact the risk would have been in not getting on the bandwagon.

Newspapers like the Denver Post refer to Salazar as a centrist.  Apparently this is some sort of code meant to suggest a person Obama can be comfortable with, just as he seems to be comfortable with Ivy League retreads from Wall Street and the Clinton administration.  But the Obama campaign was about “CHANGE” – I still have that sign.  I hope it means something because millions of people who don’t give a damn about centrism or any other ism are depending on it.

Unfortunately, from where I sit, Ken Salazar as Secretary of Interior does not represent change, as Obama promised.  Salazar represents defending the status quo and always has.

PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. He can be reached at:





PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. Doe is a co-sponsor of a public trust initiative that would turn the tables on the permitting process by making those seeking to use public resources, air, land, and water, to first demonstrate that the proposed use would not irreparably harm those resources–the reverse of the present permitting process. He can be reached