Obama's Wilderness Point Man: Interview with Ken Salazar

Parks czar Ken Salazar talks trails, nixes ANWR drilling, and defends his boss's controversial guns-in-parks decision.

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Depending on where you stand, the Stetson-wearing former U.S. Senator from Colorado is either a new-West pragmatist dedicated to conservation or a cowboy with a checkered environmental record. Either way, he’s the President’s pick to lead the Department of the Interior. BACKPACKER caught up with Salazar to learn what’s in store for America’s wilderness.

What is the biggest threat to national parks?

Being loved to death. With more than 300 million annual visitors, we need to take care of these special places. The $750 million the National Park Service received from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 should help. That will be invested in all 50 states [to] create jobs. There’s a significant number of trail maintenance projects. We’ll also [push] renewable energy.

How will the Interior develop energy?

It’s a signature issue, and we need to tackle it while preserving or even restoring landscapes. With solar, wind, and geothermal energy, we’ll map where the best places are, then [look at] ecological, historical, or cultural values [to find a] balance.

How can we get more kids outside?

Our proposed 2010 budget has a $50 million initiative to bring young people into hunting and fishing and outdoor recreation. Up to 15,000 kids will also be employed as part of our efforts to start a 21st-century Civilian Conservation Corps.

Loaded guns in national parks? The President chose not to fight it. Explain.

I hope this doesn’t become the defining issue for Interior. There is a reality with the Second Amendment. The President is not about taking away the rights of gun owners. Neither am I. [But] we will make sure we are also honoring public safety and environmental concerns people have raised.

Would you carry a gun into a park?

If I felt I was in danger, I would. I grew up in a place where I slept with a .22 by my bedside. On the ranch or in the mountains, you have a sense of security with a gun.

Any new national parks in our future?

We already have one on our radar screen–in Delaware. It’s the only state without one.

Talk about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Some still want to change its status to permit oil drilling.

ANWR will remain a wildlife refuge.

Something lighter: Where would you take a BACKPACKER reader hiking?

The Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. I know it well, so we wouldn’t get lost.