Interior's new secretary — general or foot soldier?

Will Kempthorne’s deal-making prowess be enough to get something done?

  • In May, Dirk Kempthorne, left, took the helm of the Interior Department, which has seen its influence dwindle under President Bush, right.

    Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images
 

Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, who became secretary of the Interior during the Carter administration, said he took that post so that he could have more control over his own state than he did as governor. He had a good point: Managing 500 million acres of land, with 80,000 employees and a $16.4 billion budget, the Interior secretary is probably the West’s most influential political figure.

In May, another Idaho governor, Dirk Kempthorne, R, became the 49th secretary of the Interior, gliding through the Senate confirmation process with only minor turbulence. As he took office on May 30, Kempthorne unveiled an ambitious agenda that includes overhauling the Endangered Species Act, resolving a massive lawsuit over missing Indian money, and encouraging the development of alternative energy sources. But with less than three years in his term, and an administration that has taken a proactive, pro-development stance on public-lands issues in the West, it’s questionable whether Kempthorne can realize the kind of influence Andrus described.

Historically, the power emanating from the Interior Department has fluctuated. Stewart Udall, who served under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, was one of the most visible and influential secretaries. "I had a wonderful, broad delegation of authority. I didn’t have anybody in the White House supervising me," Udall told an audience at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2003. "I was a wheeler and a dealer and it was a wonderful time."

Udall’s freedom stemmed from the fact that neither Kennedy nor Johnson had an agenda for the West and its public lands. They were wrapped up in Cold War crises, Vietnam, and civil rights issues, leaving Udall to write his own plans.

Bruce Babbitt, Interior secretary under President Clinton, was nearly as productive as Udall, but he had to find a more subtle way to get things done. His early attempts at rangeland reform were blasted by both ranchers and environmentalists. When Republicans took control of Congress, Babbitt decided to get out of Washington and into the lands he administered, working with the people who lived there to protect endangered species, reform forest fire policies, and restore battered rangelands. He helped shape the president’s environmental agenda by slipping him a note during a party, on which he’d jotted ideas for how Clinton could outdo Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation legacy. Clinton accepted the challenge (HCN, 2/12/01: Mr. Babbitt's wild ride).

President Bush has not looked to Interior for leadership, however. From the beginning, he and Vice President Dick Cheney have had their eyes on the vast energy reserves lying under the West’s public lands. Interior’s job has been to hold open the door to development. The administration left little room for Kempthorne’s predecessor, Gale Norton, to form her own agenda, let alone execute it (HCN, 4/3/06: Norton departs).

But with Bush spiraling downward in public opinion polls, Cheney losing clout, and a new White House chief of staff on board, Interior may get a bit more wiggle room. Kempthorne, a former senator, returns to Washington as an insider known for his personal charm. That, combined with his ability to broker deals on initiatives that otherwise appear doomed, could help catapult Kempthorne past his predecessor.

Deal maker

Five years ago, a potential water deal between the Nez Perce Tribe, the federal government and Idaho farmers was on the brink of collapse. Then Kempthorne stepped in. Four years later, the parties reached a compromise resolving the tribe’s water claims, offering protection for both salmon and development (HCN, 3/07/05: Small tribe in Idaho weighs big water deal). Not everyone is happy with the settlement, but the governor’s intervention kept all parties at the negotiating table.

Pulling compromises out of contentious situations is standard operating procedure for Kempthorne. As a United States senator in the ’90s, he wrote legislation that streamlined the Endangered Species Act while recognizing environmentalists’ concerns. Ultimately, the private-property rights lobby shot down that bill, but later, as governor, Kempthorne used it as the foundation for his efforts on salmon, wolves and grizzly bears.

"His track record shows a pattern of coming up with solutions on the very same issues he will be responsible for as secretary of the Interior," says Greg Schildwachter, a former Kempthorne aide who is now associate director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Environmentalists have often felt left out of Kempthorne’s deals, however. The group Idaho Rivers United was shut out of the Nez Perce deal, and on the wolf agreement, he brought in the Idaho Conservation League but excluded Defenders of Wildlife, which he knew couldn’t agree to key points ranchers wanted.

Kempthorne earned a dismal 1 percent League of Conservation Voters score during his time in Congress, and 100 environmental groups signed a letter expressing concern about his appointment. But some greens are cautiously optimistic that the new secretary will be willing to crack the door open to their concerns. During his confirmation hearings, Kempthorne said he opposes recent attempts to sell off public lands, and supports the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

"Dirk recognizes that the West is changing and our values are changing," says Rick Johnson of the Idaho Conservation League. "Dirk is an urban Westerner. His boots are polished."

The author is an environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and author of Scorched Earth: How the Fires in Yellowstone Changed America. HCN Associate Editor Jonathan Thompson contributed to this report.

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