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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New Interior Head Picked

Air Date: Week of

President Bush has nominated Idaho governor and former U.S. Senator Dirk Kempthorne to be the next Secretary of the Interior, replacing Gale Norton. Host Steve Curwood talks with Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent Jeff Young about Kempthorne’s record on the environment.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

President Bush has nominated Idaho Governor and former Senator Dirk Kempthorne as the next Secretary of the Interior. If confirmed by the Senate, Governor Kempthorne would replace Gale Norton, the first woman to become secretary of the interior. Ms. Norton resigned after five years of aggressively expanding energy development on federal lands. Critics say that came at the expense of conservation.

The interior secretary is responsible for some 500 million acres of land, vast offshore resources, national parks, protection of endangered species, and relations with Native Americans. The interior also leases and permits mining and drilling for roughly a third of the country’s domestic energy production. In short, it is an important position.

Here to talk about what sort of interior secretary Governor Kempthorne might make is our Washington correspondent, Jeff Young.

YOUNG: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Jeff, what do we know about Dirk Kempthorne’s environmental record?

YOUNG: As a senator he tried unsuccessfully to overhaul the Endangered Species Act, something most environmental groups strongly opposed. And he rarely voted with conservation groups’ wishes.

Tiernan Sittenfeld is with the League of Conservation Voters. They rank members of Congress in a sort of scorecard, and she says Kempthorne scored very poorly.

SITTENFELD: In fact, voting with the environment just one percent of the time. And that’s why it’s particularly alarming to think that he could be in a position of overseeing public lands and wildlife all across the country.

CURWOOD: Now Jeff, Dirk Kempthorne left the Senate a decade ago to run for governor of Idaho. What’s he done on the environment as governor?

YOUNG: He’s pushed hard for more money for states’ parks. He generally resists big ambitious federal programs on the environment. For example, he did not like Clinton’s proposal to protect roadless areas in national forests. And late in the Clinton years, Governor Kempthorne sued to stop a plan that would have returned grizzly bears to Idaho. After Bush won the 2000 election, Secretary Norton withdrew that plan, by the way. And Kempthorne also fought the Environmental Protection Agency over a Superfund cleanup site in Idaho he thought grew too large and too costly. Here’s how he put it at the time.

KEMPTHORNE: I told the EPA that I am so frustrated with them that I'm on the verge of inviting them to leave the state of Idaho.

YOUNG: So he’s more inclined toward state and regional approaches to problems—on water rights, for example, he recently settled a dispute with a tribal government on who gets access to the Snake River. And he’s part of a four-state effort on salmon recovery. Now, that has upset some Idaho conservation groups I spoke with. They say Kempthorne has blocked attempts to remove some dams, which is what they say must happen to bring back endangered salmon. But in a conference call with reporters just after his nomination was announced, Kempthorne defended his environmental record.

KEMPTHORNE: I have a record that I’m proud of. But if you look at, for example, efforts such as reform of the Endangered Species Act--bipartisan support. So, I really believe that as people look at this and as they want someone who is willing to sit down with them at the table and take on some tough issues that do exist out there, but that they’re going to have an opportunity to have their say, I think ultimately will be successful.

CURWOOD: Now Jeff, we tend to think of the interior as running the national parks but energy development has really defined the Interior Department under Secretary Norton—she pushed for more drilling permits out west, more offshore drilling and, of course, she led the fight to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. Where do you see Kempthorne on energy issues?

YOUNG: Well, I expect he will continue the policies Norton put in place to speed up drilling permits on public land. This has become very divisive especially out along the Rocky Mountain Front where a lot of communities see drilling pads and roads eating up the landscape. But it’s also pumping a lot of money into local economies and state coffers. I spoke with Brian Hinchey. He’s with Wyoming’s Petroleum Association. He’s pleased with this choice for Secretary of the Interior. He wants Kempthorne to stay on the course that Norton set.

HINCHEY: You know, those are hard shoes to fill. I think Gale did an excellent job not only for our industry but for other industries in our state and in western states. And she’s tried to be as balanced as she can and it’s a tough row to plow, but she’s done a good job of that.

YOUNG: And offshore drilling is of course another hot issue, and we’ll find out very soon what Kempthorne thinks on that because Florida’s Democratic Senator Bill Nelson says he’s going to place a hold on this nomination until he gets a promise that drilling in the Gulf of Mexico won’t get too close to Florida’s coastline.

CURWOOD: And finally, Jeff, what are the chances for Governor Kempthorne to get confirmed as secretary of the interior?

YOUNG: Very good I’d say. Response from the Senate has been very positive. And of course, he’s one of theirs. He’s a former senator and former senators have a very good record being confirmed by the Senate.

CURWOOD: Jeff Young is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent. Thanks, Jeff.

YOUNG: You’re welcome.



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