President-elect Barack Obama plans to name Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) to lead the Interior Department -- an appointment that could put the brakes on several controversial energy development projects across the West.
Two senior Democrats said Monday that Obama would name Salazar, a Latino, to the post, rounding out an energy and environmental policy team announced at a Chicago news conference.
If confirmed, Salazar would head a department with a broad portfolio, including managing the troubled Bureau of Indian Affairs. Salazar, 53, would also oversee the nation's national parks and other large swaths of public lands, making him the country's foremost landlord. And he would be responsible for the Bureau of Land Management, which sets policy for oil and gas drilling, mining and other resource extraction on public land.
Earlier this year, Salazar criticized the department for decisions to open Colorado's picturesque Roan Plateau for drilling. Salazar said the regulations to begin opening land for oil shale development would "sell Colorado short."
Salazar was not the first choice of some environmental groups, who had favored Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.). A coalition of 141 environmental groups, biologists and other scientists launched an e-mail and letter-writing campaign in support of Grijalva.
Grijalva last month compiled a scathing report on what he considered President Bush's environmental legacy on public lands. The list of Bush's missteps mirrored complaints from conservation groups that the administration -- through the Department of Interior -- was damaging the West's resources.
Karen Schambach, the California coordinator for the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, described Salazar as more of a centrist. Still, she expected he would be a "sympathetic soul" in a department that had offered a cold shoulder to the environmental community.
"The past eight years with the Bush administration have felt like a battle, then it became total despair," she said. "To have a battle, you have to feel like you were somewhat engaged. We were not."
Schambach said that even though she supported Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) to be the next Interior secretary, she is optimistic that Salazar, a Westerner, will understand the region's issues.
Salazar's family helped settle what is now New Mexico in the 1500s. He was raised on a ranch in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, and became an attorney with expertise in water law.
"In rural areas," Salazar said in an interview this summer, "they understand water as their lifeblood."
Colorado bears a special burden as the home to the headwaters of the Colorado River. The state has an obligation under the Colorado River Compact to ensure it sends the required amount of water to the downstream states, including California.
The state just completed an assessment of its water resources, with grim results. According to state officials, drought, explosive growth, agricultural use and intensifying energy development have overstressed the water supply.
Salazar was joined by Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. and the Denver Water Board in voicing concern about the fast-tracking of federal oil shale leasing in the state, citing unanswered questions about its effects on water quantity and quality.
Salazar led Colorado's Department of Natural Resources and served as the state's attorney general before winning a vacant Senate seat in 2004. He entered Congress in the same freshman class as Obama.
The senator campaigned vigorously for Obama in Colorado, a swing state, barnstorming rural areas in a recreational vehicle while preaching alternative-energy development and its potential to revitalize rural economies. After the election, Salazar publicly urged Obama to build his planned economic stimulus package around investments in energy infrastructure.
Salazar campaigned for the Senate as a centrist and was part of the Gang of 14, a group of moderate lawmakers who brokered a compromise on judicial nominations. He quietly made his mark on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee but occasionally stirred controversy on both sides of the aisle.
He outraged many religious conservatives when he called James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, "the antichrist" -- though he revised the comment to "un-Christian."
He upset liberals by introducing Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush's nominee for attorney general, at his Senate confirmation hearing. Salazar later called on Gonzales to resign over allegations of politically motivated firings of U.S. attorneys.
Ritter, a Democrat, professed "mixed emotions" Monday about a possible Salazar nomination.
"Ken Salazar has been an extremely effective U.S. senator for Colorado these past four years, particularly as a moderate and as a centrist," Ritter said.
"But if a nomination to join the Obama administration comes to pass, Sen. Salazar would make an equally outstanding Interior secretary for the country, for the West and for Colorado."