On Inauguration Day, Ken Salazar became the 50th U.S. secretary of the Department of the Interior and the sixth Coloradan to serve in the post.

Until now, Colorado has been tied with Ohio and Illinois, each of which contributed five Interior secretaries to the United States.

With Salazar — who is the first Interior secretary born in Colorado — the Centennial State becomes the champion state for providing Interior secretaries.

In an effort to gain a better understanding of Colorado’s central role in the Interior Department, we spoke to Patty Limerick, faculty director and chair of the Board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.

Limerick is well qualified to provide historic perspective on the Interior Department. In 2003 and 2004, she and Center of the West co-founder Charles Wilkinson interviewed eight former Interior secretaries for a series co-sponsored by the Nature Conservancy.

She offers several reasons for Colorado’s central position as a talent pool for the Interior Department.

“For one thing, Colorado became a state earlier than other states in the interior West,” she noted. “From early on, it was the most established outpost in the interior West. We also have a bigger population.

“And Colorado is a center for many of the resources and issues that are governed by the Interior Department: national parks, scenic values, outdoor recreation, ranching, mining, logging, energy production.”

Limerick also believes Colorado’s mainstream culture has tended to keep it in the spotlight.

“Colorado seems so very American,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt that Denver is the biggest city in the interior West, but there’s more to it than that. Right from the beginning, when Governor William Gilpin pushed for Colorado troops to fight on the Union side in the Civil War, we got a reputation in Washington as the part of the West that was behaving.”

Limerick believes Salazar has all the makings of an outstanding Interior Secretary.

“The good news is that whoever comes out of Colorado will be well acquainted with all the headaches and frictions that concern the Interior Department,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anything Ken Salazar doesn’t already know about multiple use.”

However, she added, the Interior Department is at the vortex as the United States and the world shift priorities between the environment and the economy — which has a lot to do with the controversy that dogged the administrations of Interior secretaries James Watt and Gale Norton.

“The rise of environmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s brought our understanding of progress around by 180 degrees,” she said. “We’ve had a time of astonishing change, whiplash, shaking and disorientation from the rise of this movement, and it’s quite an enormous issue.

“It would all be lovely if we didn’t have to exploit our natural resources, but we do. The leasing of gas and oil is mandated by law.

“Watt and Norton were more committed to keeping the old values in play, and they got ground up in the gears,” she said. “We’d all like to believe we’ve left all that behind and we can just appreciate nature for its beauty. But the fact is, we still need coal and gas and oil and water.”

Limerick believes the Obama’s much-vaunted transition to renewable resources will be more painful than anticipated.

“It’s so wonderful to think about what’s ahead with wind or solar power, but let’s not forget that it disrupts the landscape. Hydroelectric is renewable. But do we really want more dams?”

However, Limerick believes Salazar is taking the reins of the Interior Department at a “fascinating, exhilarating time.”

“He’s at the flashpoint of change,” she said. “And it’s apt to be uncomfortable. It’s just important to know why you’re uncomfortable. Is it because you’ve done the wrong thing, or because you’ve done the right thing under difficult circumstances?”

— Janet@coloradostatesman.com