Secretary of the Department of the Interior Ken Salazar announced January 16 that he plans to step down at the end of March from his Cabinet position to head back to his home state of Colorado, where he was a Democratic senator before President Barack Obama tapped him for the position that he began in 2009.
“Colorado is and will always be my home,” Salazar said in a statement. “I look forward to returning to my family and Colorado after eight years in Washington, D.C. I am forever grateful to President Obama for his friendship in the U.S. Senate and the opportunity he gave me to serve as a member of his cabinet during this historic presidency.”
Upon announcing his decision, Salazar was widely praised for his work on energy projects, including putting the brakes on oil drilling after the infamous BP oil spill disaster of 2010, as well as for his support of clean energy development. Under Salazar’s tenure, Interior has authorized 34 solar, wind and geothermal energy projects on public lands that total 10,400 megawatts, according to a press release from the agency, which noted that he has also overhauled Interior’s management of oil and gas resources, and has implemented ethics standards for all employees.
In terms of Indian country, Salazar will largely be remembered for overseeing the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement, first announced in December 2009, as well as the president’s signature of six Indian water rights settlements, which have totaled more than $1 billion. He also oversaw several more tribal trust settlements, and he regularly met with tribal leaders, visited tribal communities, and spoke often of the administration’s commitment to Indian country. According to Interior, “Salazar spearheaded a sweeping reform – the first in 50 years – of federal surface leasing regulations for American Indian lands that will streamline the approval process for home ownership, expedite economic development, and spur renewable energy in Indian country.”
“President Obama has made it a priority to empower our nation’s first Americans by helping to build stronger, safer and more prosperous tribal communities,” Salazar said in his statement. “This administration has been marked by a renewed commitment to honoring a nation-to-nation relationship and ensuring tribes have a greater role in federal decisions affecting Indian country.”
Obama thanked Salazar for his service, saying he has “made historic strides in strengthening our nation to nation relationship with Indian country, helping to resolve longstanding disputes and make tribal communities safer and stronger.”
Many elected officials and tribal leaders have also praised Salazar’s service and commitment to Indian country.
“Secretary Salazar…ushered in a new era of consultation and collaboration with our nation’s Indian tribes,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.
“Ken did an incredible job bringing a western perspective to this job, honoring American Indians, and managing our natural treasures while responsibly increasing our energy security,” added Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana.
“Secretary Ken Salazar will be remembered for the promises he kept and the trust he rebuilt with tribal nations and Native people. His legacy among tribes is rooted in the depth of the relationships he forged between American Indian and Alaska Native governments and the United States government during the first term of the Obama Administration,” the National Congress of American Indians said in an official statement following Salazar’s announcement. “… Secretary Salazar lifted the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs to new levels of visibility and accountability, and made a personal commitment to that effort.”
However, there were some areas of concern to tribal citizens during his tenure, including his support for the Cape Wind development in Massachusetts, which conflicted with cultural values of some tribes in that region. And, despite his commitment to trust reform, there were criticisms of the Cobell deal from those who say the land consolidation portions of it are flawed, among other critiques. The Department under his leadership also missed some key deadlines, including reporting the number of federally recognized tribes and developing an overdue tribal jobs reports.
Given Salazar’s resignation, many in Indian country have now turned their focus to getting a strong candidate to fill his post.
Suzan Shown Harjo, a well-known Indian activist, has added her voice to a coalition supporting U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz.: “Raúl Grijalva has worked with Native American nations and people for many years. He understands what we face as ancient cultural continuums, as governments and as families,” she said in a letter sent to Obama earlier this year. “He is perfect for this job.”
Some have also pointed to Washington state Gov. Christine Gregoire as a serious contender for the position, since Obama has received criticism for the lack of gender diversity in his new Cabinet to date. Gregoire has been thought to be a possible contender to head Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency in his second term, but her qualifications – and good relationship with Indian country – would also make her a natural fit for Interior, supporters say.
John Berry, director of the White House Office of Personnel Management, is another contender, and would be the first openly gay Cabinet member if selected and confirmed. Deputy Secretary David Hayes, former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, and former Sen. Byron Dorgan, have also been mentioned as possibilities.