Secretary Salazar Urges A Fast Recovery
MICHEL MARTIN, Host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, being black, brown and green, no we're not talking about the liberation flag colors, we're asking why the environment movement seems so lacking in ethnic diversity, if that matters and what can be done about it. It's the latest of our special collaborations with the online publication The Root and our guests include MacArthur Genius Award winner Majora Carter, that's next.
But first, we continue to mark this birthday with a conversation about America and its natural resources. And who is better to talk to about this than the man who oversees one fifth of the country's land mass, including land that contains half the country's coal and a third of its oil and natural gas. He also supervises more than 67,000 employees in agencies as diverse as the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That man is Ken Salazar.
He's a former United States senator from Colorado, and in January, was sworn in as the nation's 50th Secretary of the Interior. And he is with us now from his office. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for speaking with us.
KEN SALAZAR: Thank you very much Michel for having me on NPR, I appreciate being on your show.
MARTIN: Now, Mr. Secretary I want to talk to you about specific initiatives you have at the department in a minute. But there are many people who would say that other than Native Americans, most of the country's minority groups are not closely identified with the conservation or the environmental movement. Some people say they kind of see it as a kind of a white yuppie thing. That's fine for people who can afford to be interested in that, but if you're in survival mode, it's really not your priority. Do you think that that's true?
SALAZAR: I do think that it is true. I do think that people of color, Hispanics, African-Americans, Native Americans, others have not been involved in the national environmental movements. Or even in terms of some of the employment opportunities that we have at the Department of Interior or in state divisions, wildlife or parks. It's just a reality that there aren't that many African-American wildlife biologists out there. And so, one of the challenges that we have is to make sure that we move forward as we become an ever more diverse America, to really become an inclusive America.
I'm doing it here in the Department of Interior, where for example, I will hire the first Native American ever to be solicitor general of this department. The first African-American ever to run the Lands and Mineral Division as an assistant secretary, the first Native American to run the Bureau of Reclamation, that overseas all the water issues of the country. So, we are moving forward to walk the talk at the top of this department by being diverse in the people that we hire.
And I hope to be able to move forward with that agenda by creating a 21st Century civilian conservation corps, where we will have young people from all backgrounds, no matter who you are, no matter where you are from, having an opportunity to work and to connect to the outdoors.
MARTIN: Now Mr. Secretary, I want to talk to you about specific initiatives you have at the department in a minute, but before we do, many people are concerned about their jobs, they are concerned about the economy, their homes, their savings. How do you make the environment a priority?
SALAZAR: I think when you look back at the history of America, it is in the times of crisis that we've had our greatest leadership in terms of taking care of our earth and our environment. It was during the Civil War that Abraham Lincoln set aside the lands for Yosemite National Park. It was in the midst of the industrial age and laying barren rivers and areas for the industrial revolution that Teddy Roosevelt expanded the national parks and created National Forest system. So, now when we have wars on two fronts, an economic crisis here at home, it's important that on this Earth Day we refuel our spirits by the natural wonders around us.
MARTIN: Mr. Secretary, I wanted to talk about some of the challenges you face as Secretary, some of which are better known in some parts of the country than others. Here in Washington, D.C. I think a lot of people are acquainted with kind of a the national parks fraying at the edges and they are also aware of the sex and drugs scandal that emerged in the last administration, where employees were engaged in drug use and passing favors, including sexual favors, to oil company executives in exchange for energy contracts, not to mention low morale of the department.
There is the whole question whether the parks infrastructure is up to standard, especially now that because times are tight many people are looking to the national parks as an affordable recreation. Where do you start? How do you set priorities when you've got so many things to address?
SALAZAR: Well, we've had a very clear and defined agenda from day one. And it's an agenda which President Obama and I agreed we'd work on for the Department of Interior. We've been cleaning up a lot of messes over the last 92 or 3 days. We'll continue to do that. There's still a lot of things that the prior administration did, especially in its last year, where they made faulty decisions. And so there's a lot that we have to do to clean up the department. We need to move the department forward into the new world of energy and climate change.
Historically, this department has essentially let leases go throughout our public labs in the LCS without thinking about the alternative forms of energy, as well as dealing with issues of climate change. And so that's become a huge priority of mine. It's something that this department will become defined with over time. It's a very diametrically opposed change to what had happened before. We're now look at energy in a more comprehensive manner than happened a year historically.
Secondly, the treasured landscapes of America, for me, are important. We know we have a $9 billion backlog in the National Park system, just in terms of maintenance. We're moving fast forward with that, with a billion dollar investment out of the stimulus package in restoring our parks. Our parks and special places can be job creators for America. And we're going to have a Rooseveltian legacy when we are done. Third, we are going to move forward with programs that help our Native American communities throughout the nation.
We have about 500 tribes, 50,000 young Native Americans who actually go to schools which are overseen by me. We're going to create new opportunities there for young people. We're going to bring in young people to work with us in this department and to be educated in natural resources and environmental issues at unprecedented levels. And finally we're going to deal with specific water and river restoration and lake restoration efforts that range from the Chesapeake Bay to the Everglades to the Great Lakes to the Clamoth(ph) to the Delta bay and Bay delta in California.
So there's a lot of work to do, a lot of very specific projects. But of this I am confident, that people will look back at this time as a time of challenge and we have to overcome some difficult issues. But I'm very optimistic about our future.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and our guest is Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. He's speaking with us as part of our special Earth Day coverage. We're talking about his career and his view of environmental policy. Many people have already criticized President Obama for trying to do too much in too short a period of time. And the same criticism has been directed at you.
SALAZAR: I think the criticism is misplaced. I think the reality of it is that there is a lot to do. There were many problems that were created by the prior administration. Frankly, sometimes through overt acts, sometimes it was just through neglect. And we as a country are up to it as a population to face those challenges and to really do the right things for the people of this country.
MARTIN: In President Obama's stimulus package, only an estimated $3 billion of the nearly $800 billion is slotted to go to the Interior Department. Is that enough?
SALAZAR: Well in the context of what we're trying to do in the recovery program, yes, because the amount of money we received in the park system, which is about a billion dollars, will be about what we can spend in a timeframe within the next two years for projects that are shovel ready, projects which are going to create jobs right away. And we're going to see those jobs being created here within the next 30-45 days. We're going to make our - we've made our final decisions.
We'll be announcing that in the next few days with respect to how we move forward with these investments. But at this point in time, I think it is a great start to be able to have essentially a billion dollar down payment on what are very critical needs within the National Park system.
MARTIN: I just wanted, in the time that we have left, to talk about the whole issue of offshore drilling. It's a very emotional issue for a lot of people. And it is one of those issues that just connects the issue of the environment with the issue of economic progress, which of course people are very concerned about both right now. Now recently, a Federal appeals court threw out the Interior Department's offshore oil and gas leasing program after finding that part of the department's environmental analysis was inadequate. What happens now?
SALAZAR: We are in the process of taking a look at that decision and making decisions about how to move forward with the current plan that covers the timeframe from 2007 to 2012. And we're doing analysis of that decision and trying to make determination about what that all means to leases that have already been made, as well as to leases that are planned over the next several years.
But in addition to that, the hearings that I've held in Atlantic City, New Orleans, San Francisco, Anchorage, and Dillingham, Alaska, all were hearings to try to get the input from the people on the ground, the affected communities, about what it is that they want to see happen out in the Outer Continental Shelf, and I would take two things away from that.
One is that there is great excitement about the possibility of harnessing the power of renewables in the ocean, including offshore wind. In addition, there is great variety of opinion, depending on where you are around the country, in the Gulf Coast of Mexico, for example, people in Louisiana, very comfortable with oil and gas off their shores, whereas in the Pacific and California, people don't want it.
On New Jersey and most of the Atlantic, most of those states don't want it. And Alaska's a very complicated picture. I think that what is important there is that we are listening to the people.
These issues about the future of the Outer Continental Shelf are not being made in the closets of some Washington, D.C. office space. These decisions will be made out in the open with the kind of transparency that President Obama and I want to bring to this department.
MARTIN: And finally, Mr. Secretary, you've already had a very distinguished career, and you've done a lot of things and moved a very long way from that ranch with no indoor plumbing that you grew up in. How will you know when you've succeeded in this job?
SALAZAR: I will know on the new energy frontier when we have transitioned over to a new energy world when I see our energy coming from renewable and sustainable energy, when I see the balance that needs to be brought to protect our environment, while at the same time development occurs with respect to oil and gas and coal resources, and I will be able to see that first-hand. I will be able to know that we have gotten to a point where the treasured landscapes investments that we're making in America are the ones that we can be proud of in 100 years.
I can see it in terms of an objective, quantifiable factor relative to young people. How many young people do we actually have engaged in taking care of our outdoors and looking at programs in wildlife biology and water resources and the like?
So I will know, and I know that I will know within a few years about our success. And I'm very confident we'll be successful.
MARTIN: Ken Salazar is the secretary of interior. He was kind enough to join us from his office here in Washington, D.C. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for speaking with us.
SALAZAR: Thank you, Michel. Thank you very much. Happy Earth Day.
MARTIN: Happy Earth Day to you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.