"The truth is," Salazar said during a town hall meeting on Wednesday, "the strength of our economy, the strength of our spirit [and] the strength of our union are all tied to what we do here at the Department of the Interior."
He outlined Interior's five-year strategic plan released just before the meeting, for an audience of about 350 employees in Washington and more watching online nationwide.
The plan focused on five main departmental missions: creating a 21st century workplace; advancing governmental relations with Native Americans; establishing science-based decision-making processes; managing natural resources; and offering citizens natural and cultural experiences.
Within the five missions, it set 23 specific goals. As part of the effort to become a 21st century workplace, for instance, the strategic plan aims to reduce hiring time to 80 days, maximize the sustainability of Interior's operations, improve the upkeep of the department's nearly 47,000 buildings and reduce information technology costs by 4 percent.
Several of the objectives have been assigned a high priority, including hiring more young people. To underscore this goal, Julie Rodriguez, director of Interior's Youth Office and one of the employees in charge of the initiative, introduced Salazar. Calling her a "real superstar," Salazar thanked Rodriguez for the significant expansion of youth hiring already seen in the past year. In fiscal 2010, Interior increased employment of workers age 25 and under by 45 percent from fiscal 2009.
The high-priority goals also included reducing violent crime on tribal reservations, increasing water capacity in the West by nearly 500,000 acre feet through conservation, approving another 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy production on land managed by Interior, and assessing climate change-related risks for half of U.S. land.
The address largely shied away from the contentious topics of pay freezes, budget cuts and potential furloughs, but Salazar did make a brief reference to the growing strain between the federal workforce and Congress after Marcilynn Burke, deputy director of policy at the Bureau of Land Management, said she "had the pleasure in the last two days of briefing some congressional staffers on our new wild lands policy."
"Are you still alive?" Salazar quipped.
He praised employees' response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last spring, and recounted the department's successes during the past two years, including the opening of the 1 million-acre Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area in Kansas and the approval of 12 sustainable energy projects that will produce 3,700 megawatts of power.
Despite this progress, Interior still has its work cut out, Salazar noted. Obama's goal of having 80 percent of the country's energy come from clean sources by 2035 is "ambitious," the Interior secretary acknowledged, and will require the use of not just solar, wind and geothermal energy, but also natural gas. And the initiative might not be popular on either side of the aisle, he said. "It will displease both Republicans and it will displease some Democrats," he predicted.
Developing clean and renewable energy is key to American competitiveness, however, Salazar said: "We need to get to a new world of energy because winning the future is going to be largely dependent on who wins the race to the energy future."