Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Thursday the department has been "painted unfairly" because of ethical lapses and criminal activity among some past political appointees.
In his first address to department workers, Salazar vowed to lead with "openness in decision-making, high ethical standards and respect to scientific integrity."
"We will ensure Interior Department decisions are based on sound science and the public interest and not special interests," declared Salazar, alluding to complaints that the Bush administration frequently ignored science in favor of a political agenda and fostered cozy relationships between officials and energy industries.
The former Colorado senator told employees gathered in the department's auditorium and in offices across the country: "This department has suffered because of ethical lapses and criminal activity at the highest level."
"There has been a picture of the department that has been painted unfairly on the backs of career employees because of actions by political appointees ... and that era is now changing and it starts today," said Salazar, prompting a long round of applause.
"We will hold people accountable. We expect people to be accountable ... and not tolerate these kind of lapses," he said.
Salazar mentioned no specific misconduct. But various investigations in recent years have revealed conflicts of interest by high-ranking Interior officials, prompting the resignations of a former deputy secretary and an assistant deputy secretary, as well as misconduct in an office overseeing oil leases.
There have been complaints from environmentalists, members of Congress — and privately by career employees of the department — that the views of department scientists often were ignored on such issues as protecting endangered species, offshore drilling management of parks and other federal lands.
Salazar, 53, who comes from a ranching family of fifth-generation Colorado Hispanics, takes the helm of a department that oversees one-fifth of America's land — about a half-billion acres — from national parks and wilderness areas to millions of acres used for grazing and energy development.
Those who work at the department, said Salazar, "have a sacred trust to protect, conserve and enhance these treasures."
But Salazar made clear he is not about to turn his back on energy development, calling the need to move toward greater energy independence "an absolute imperative of our time."
While the country must address global warming, he said, "we cannot move forward by turning off the lights and turning off coal-burning power plants." He said it's important to develop ways to capture carbon dioxide, the leading gas linked to climate change, from coal.
While outlining broad priorities, Salazar stayed away from specifics.
Would he consider reversing a decision made in the final weeks of the Bush administration to allow people to carry loaded firearms in the national parks, a U.S. Park Service employee asked, noting that park rangers already face a variety of dangers.
"We'll take a look at that ... I don't have an answer on that right now," replied Salazar, recounting that on his Colorado ranch "I always had a sense of comfort when I had my gun with me."
Asked what 11th-hour regulations from the Bush era that he might want to change, Salazar said he wasn't prepared "to say what we're going to do with any of them at this point."
Obama, as one of his first actions as president, issued an executive order to freeze government-wide those regulations still in the pipeline, including a number involving the Interior Department, until they could be reviewed.