It won't be long after President Barack Obama retakes his oath of office Monday that the impending loss of Ken Salazar as the 50th secretary of the interior is felt.

The job of secretary of the interior places its occupant squarely in the crosshairs of controversy. Overseeing everything from oil and gas drilling to Indian Affairs, the job qualifies as among the most comprehensive and contentious in America, with an aura of perpetual turmoil pinned to the difficult issues affecting the public lands so many of us rely upon for work and play.

But, in my lifetime, at least, Salazar has handled the juggling act better than most. Even in the inhospitable political climate that prevails, he's managed to keep more balls in the air than he's dropped, with notable achievements in the protection of public land and water.

Under the banner of Obama's America's Great Outdoors program, Salazar's Interior Department has established 10 national wildlife refuges and seven national parks since 2009, no easy task given Congress' failure to support dozens of public land protection bills over the past two years.

According to the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities, the most recent Congress was the first in 70 years to fail to protect a single new acre of public land. Included among the failed legislation were three wilderness proposals submitted by Colorado's Rep. Jared Polis, Rep. Diana DeGette and Sen. Mark Udall, along with the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act of 2012 proposed by Sen. Michael Bennet.

Then there was the political posturing that killed the wildly popular Sportsmen's Heritage Act of 2012. An eleventh-hour procedural motion laid to rest what would have been the biggest public lands bill in a generation, endorsed by the likes of the Sierra Club and Ducks Unlimited, not to mention both the White House and the NRA.

So, ultimately, it's a wonder Salazar managed to get anything accomplished at all the past four years. Yet the self-proclaimed "new era of conservation" ushered in to protect the land, wildlife and heritage of our nation isn't such a stretch by D.C. standards. Our political leaders are rarely accused of the sort of community-driven, science-based conservation strategies witnessed during Salazar's tenure.

Given Salazar's agricultural roots in the arid West, it's no more surprising than refreshing to see so much of his emphasis placed on river management. Clean water and healthy rivers will always remain an important issue among sportsmen, recreationists and conservationists, and the outgoing interior secretary's legacy is likely to be forever linked to his forward-thinking water policies in the face of climate change.

"Among other accomplishments, Secretary Salazar ushered in an era of responsible, modern river management in the West that brought important and diverse constituencies to the discussion in a meaningful way," Karin Sheldon, president of Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates, said last week. "This cooperative approach of including environmental, recreational and local community interests along with the concerns of irrigators, large water providers and private industry will leave a lasting and positive legacy as we deal with increased water demands and climate constrained supplies in the years to come. Rivers like the Gunnison, Yampa and Colorado are better off because of work done under his watch."

Bob Irvin, president of the environmental group American Rivers, agreed, adding that the work is far from finished.

"Secretary Salazar has been a true champion for protecting and restoring rivers and his leadership will be missed by everyone who cares about healthy, free-flowing rivers," Irwin said. "The next secretary of the interior should continue the work begun by Secretary Salazar to remove obsolete and unsafe dams, establish blue trails on our rivers to promote recreation and grow local economies, and assist communities in protecting and restoring their rivers."

Whoever is tabbed in the coming months to replace Salazar, one certainty remains: He (or she) is going to have his work cut out for him.

Scott Willoughby: 303-954-1993 or swilloughby@denverpost.com