WASHINGTON — A Cabinet nominee took the Gary Cooper role in a showdown with Washington on Thursday, when a low-talking former lawman in boots and bolo tie pledged to clean up a federal agency gone amok.
Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), nominated by President-elect Barack Obama to lead the Interior Department, appeared before a Senate committee that technically still counted him as a member for his confirmation hearing.
The Interior Department has been criticized by lawmakers and environmentalists in recent years over a sex and drugs scandal in one of its bureaus and an auditors' report saying employees manipulated endangered species decisions to advance a political agenda.
"I want to clean up the mess," Salazar said in his opening statement.
But he offered few details on his plans and sidestepped several subjects, including protections for gray wolves, the relationship between global warming and the Endangered Species Act, and whether he would continue to allow guns and snowmobiles in national parks.
In some areas he was more direct, promising to reform the nation's signature mining law and to consider numerous options for energy independence, including offshore oil drilling and, under the right conditions, oil shale development.
He pledged support for renewable energy development -- a cause he championed as senator -- and promised a balanced approach to energy and land-use policy.
He emphasized his rural roots, having grown up on a ranch in Colorado's San Luis Valley. And he called for a national conservation program putting young people to work in parks and public spaces.
Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee repeatedly told Salazar how much they admired his integrity and how they would miss him when he left the Senate. They called him "brother" and invited him to visit their states. Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) even offered to arrange for Salazar to wrestle alligators in the Everglades.
"This is on its way to being a full-fledged bouquet-tossing contest," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) joked.
Many environmental groups support the nomination, but some continue to voice their displeasure.
In a news release, Nicole Rosmarino of WildEarth Guardians said Salazar would "not take strong stances on behalf of science and environmental protection and is not up to the task of undoing the enormous damage the Bush administration has done."
Salazar repeatedly promised to put science first in Interior Department decision-making. But asked if he thought the government should consider global warming in endangered species protection -- a position environmentalists favor but the Bush administration rejects -- he gave only a hint of an opinion.
"There is no doubt that climate change and global warming is having an impact on a whole host of natural features of this world, including endangered species that we have," Salazar said. "It is something that we will take a look at."
Salazar said he was open to compromise over a pair of domestic oil initiatives: drilling on the outer continental shelf, which he said could make sense in some areas but not others, and leasing federal land for oil shale development -- a particularly hot issue in his home state, where most shale efforts are located.
He pledged to pursue research into so-called clean-coal technology that seeks to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions from coal to curb global warming.
Even initially skeptical Republicans declared themselves pleased.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) had said he was concerned that Salazar's energy approach was "to cut off America's energy supply." But after speaking with him this week, DeMint told Salazar at the hearing, he had come to think "we're pretty much on the same page."