All the Pretty Horses: Ken Salazar to Leave Interior

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You know about the Gulf oil spill. You know about the relaxed regulatory oversight. But in the past four years, the Interior Department has also presided over a ruinous wild horse program.

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Jim Young/Reuters

The Denver Post reported first this morning that Ken Salazar, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior, will soon resign and leave his federal post in March. It's not an easy job. There are inherent tensions between nurturing industry and protecting the environment, between the pull to serve as a steward for public lands and the push to use that land for commerce or recreation. But by many measures, excluding his often laudable work on Native American issues, the Salazar era at the Interior Department has been a grim one, from the Gulf oil spill on down.

Conservatives have their own reasons for disliking Salazar's tenure at Interior. To them, he didn't move quickly enough to open up public lands to oil exploration. To them, our high gas prices are his fault and not the fault of the oil companies who set prices.

To me, Salazar's failures have been most pronounced in his oversight of the Bureau of Land Management as it has overseen the fate of the nation's wild horses. They are supposed to be protected and managed under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, a 1971 federal law which gave to the Interior Department vast discretion to do right by the horses.

Part of a longtime Colorado ranching family, eschewing reasonable alternatives, largely unaccountable to public opinion, Salazar consistently sided with ranching and livestock interests as they moved to push the nation's horses off public range lands. In so doing, he created additional burdens for American taxpayers-- who now are paying for the costs of wild horses in round-up pens-- while endorsing policies and practices which benefited these private industries. These are the same industries, incidentally, which already have long benefited from "welfare ranching"-- far-below-market lease rates for public grazing land out West.

Specifically, Salazar has allowed the BLM to: 1) round up tens of thousands of our wild horses from the patchwork of public and private lands and deposit them into ruinous holding pens in the Midwest; 2) allowed known advocates of horse slaughter to purchase thousands of those doomed horses; 3) refused to publicly discipline one of his deputies, a former BP oil executive, after she seemed to encourage ranchers to sue her own department to gain an advantage over the horses, and; 4) generated no viable plan for the continuing protection and management of these horses, which virtually guarantees their destruction.

This morning, I asked Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, an advocate who has watched Salazar's work every day over the past four years, to comment upon his tenure. Here's her response:

Secretary Salazar failed to deliver on his promise to reform the federal wild horse and burro program. Under Salazar's administration the pace of government wild horse roundups has accelerated. Over 35,000 mustangs have been removed from our public lands during his tenure. For the first time in history, the government stockpiles more wild horses in captivity than remain free in the wild. Meanwhile, practical, humane and cost-effective solutions, such as birth control, have been given only token attention.

Roy says that Salazar's consistent antipathy toward the horses paradoxically "rallied tens of thousands of Americans" to their cause. And she says that the next Interior Secretary will have to grapple with these energized activists. But the hard truth is that Salazar-- and the Obama Administration-- never really paid a political price for the industry-friendly policies they employed, and for the damage they are doing to the horses, because the wild horse lobby is but a mere snowflake in the blizzard of corporate influence over politics in Washington.

Both President Obama and Vice President Biden fawned over Salazar during their tenure. He repaid their loyalty many times over by campaigning hard for the administration during the last two presidential campaigns -- both of which resulted in Obama victories in the Rocky Mountain battleground state. Indeed, by early Wednesday, the White House had issued a statement on behalf of the president thanking the outgoing secretary for his public service and acknowledging his return to Colorado:

As Secretary of the Interior, Ken has helped usher in a new era of conservation for our nation's land, water and wildlife.... In his work to promote renewable energy projects on our public lands and increase the development of oil and gas production, Ken has ensured that the Department's decisions are driven by the best science and promote the highest safety standards.

Whether the "best science" part is true about oil and gas exploration, I cannot say. But I can say, having followed the wild horses story for the past few years, that BLM actions over herd management areas were not always consistent with the "best science" available. There were, and there are, legitimate disagreements about how much damage wild horses do to the public lands upon which they graze, especially when compared to the damage that cattle and sheep do to the land (the ratio of livestock to wild horses on these grazing lands is huge, by some measures 50:1).

Whatever the case, Salazar's departure gives the president an opportunity to get it right the second time. The next Secretary of the Interior should not be a rancher or livestock agent or oil and gas executive. She or he should not be beholden to any of special interests groups which long have dominated -- and too often scandalized -- the work of the Interior Department. And, please, if it's not too much to ask, the next Secretary of the Interior should be someone who cares enough about our nation's wild horses to defend them, under federal law, against the men and woman who want them gone from our land.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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