President Bush selected Dirk Kempthorne as interior secretary Thursday, saying the Idaho governor brings wide experience to the job of managing the nation’s parks, public lands and natural resources.
If confirmed by the Senate, the 54-year-old Kempthorne — himself a former senator — would replace Gale Norton as head of an agency that manages one of every five acres in the United States, areas as diverse as Yellowstone National Park and the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa.
“Dirk understands that those who live closest to the land know how to manage it best,” the president said, “and he will work closely with state and local leaders to ensure wise stewardship of our resources.”
Said Kempthorne: “God bless America the beautiful. I would be honored to serve this land.”
Kempthorne, a former mayor of Boise, served one term in the Senate, then retired to return home and run for governor. He was elected in 1998, and easily won a second term in 2002 with more than 55 percent of the vote in his reliably Republican, conservative state.
Praise for predecessor
Bush praised Norton as the first woman to lead the Interior Department and said she had been instrumental in establishing an initiative to protect communities from catastrophic wildfire. He said she had also helped lead efforts to restore offshore energy production after Hurricane Katrina.
Her tenure was stormy at times, and her second-in-command, Steven Griles, had a close relationship with disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Several e-mail exchanges between the two men are now the subject of investigations by a Senate committee and the Justice Department.
The Interior portfolio often generates controversy — developers clashing with environmentalists — and Norton’s successor will have to deal with issues as diverse as a backlog of building needs in the National Park system and the state of health care on impoverished Indian reservations.
Environmentalists draw a bead
Kempthorne drew fire from environmentalists as soon as his appointment was announced.
“As governor, Kempthorne led the charge to strip protection from 60 million acres of America’s last wild forests and he’s consistently fought against protection for wildlife like grizzly bears and salmon in his home state of Idaho,” said Todd True of Earthjustice.
Barring an unexpected complication, confirmation should be a formality for Kempthorne. The Senate rarely turns down one of its former members for the Cabinet, and Republicans hold the majority with 55 of 100 seats.
“Dirk is a strong nominee for interior secretary,” said Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. “He’s an outspoken advocate for America’s parks and has a wealth of public service experience at both the state and federal levels. I look forward to his swift confirmation by the Senate.”
Democrat applauds choice
One Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, said she welcomed the appointment. “He understands the Northwest and a lot of Interior issues,” she said, adding he “stood up to the administration” over nuclear waste cleanup at a federal facility in Idaho.
The Interior Department manages one of every five acres in the United States, including 388 areas in the national park system, 544 wildlife refuges and more than 260 million acres of multiple-use lands located mainly in 12 Western states.
It also manages 824 dams and reservoirs, administers protections for endangered species and works with 562 federally recognized Indian tribes. For the past decade, the department has been embroiled in a bitter lawsuit over the department’s responsibility for Indian trust money.
Drive for parks, roads
At home in Idaho, Kempthorne spent the past year pushing for more state parks and revamping and expanding the road systems with money raised from bonds.
As leader of the National Governors Association, Kempthorne emphasized the challenge of providing long-term health care, citing his experience with his own parents.
Born in San Diego, he grew up in Spokane, Wash., graduated from the University of Idaho in 1975 and worked for FMC Corp. and the Idaho Homebuilders Association before being elected mayor of Boise in 1986.
He served as mayor until 1993, going on to serve six years in the U.S. Senate.
His political career has touched on several land and wildlife issues. Kempthorne has sued the Clinton administration over its November 2000 decision to reintroduce grizzlies into the Bitterroot range, a proposal that was ultimately withdrawn in 2001 by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. He was also part of a four-state salmon recovery effort, working with Indian tribes in the region as well as the Northwest Power Planning Council.