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“The Department of the Interior desperately needs a strong, forward-looking, reform-minded secretary,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Unfortunately Ken Salazar is not that man.”

Jon Marvel, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, called Mr. Salazar’s appointment “a travesty” adding that he would “completely undermine Obama’s message of change.”

Critics cited Mr. Salazar’s support for the nomination of former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, a Bush appointee; his statements in favor of factoring in the economic impact of endangered-species decisions; and his support for easing restrictions on offshore oil drilling.

On the other hand, support for Mr. Salazar from the other side of the aisle was nearly unanimous. He won praise from former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, as well as land-rights and energy organizations, who lauded him for his knowledge of rural issues.

A common theme for anyone who knows Mr. Salazar is his reasonable, fair approach to controversial issues. He’s been described as having a “first-class temperament,” a comment first applied to President Franklin Roosevelt and more recently to Mr. Obama.

“Ken has a great penchant and ability for bringing folks together,” said Kent Holsinger, a natural-resources attorney in Denver who has worked with the secretary on water issues.

His backers also point out that Mr. Salazar tends to shine in executive roles, first as director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, then as the state’s attorney general.

His only legislative experience came during his four years as a senator. In that capacity, he drew better marks from groups like Environment America, which gave him a 90 percent ranking in 2008, than groups like the American Land Rights Association, which gave him a 40 percent in 2007.

Chuck Cushman, who heads the ALRA, said he worries that Mr. Salazar could follow in the footsteps of Bruce Babbitt, the interior secretary under President Clinton. Like Mr. Salazar, Mr. Babbitt was a rancher from a Western state, but his affiliation was clearly with the environmental community.

“He was supposed to be an Arizona rancher, but he was clearly the enemy of ranchers, and did everything he could to strangle ranchers,” Mr. Cushman said. “If Ken Salazar is Bruce Babbitt in a cowboy hat, then we’ve got a problem.”