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for people who care about the West

Who will be the West’s new boss?


One of the great parlor games of the West is to guess who the next president will choose to be secretary of the Interior Department.

The man or woman succeeding Idaho's Dirk Kempthorne will be the nation's top wildlife manager and federal landlord of more than 507 million acres of national parks, rangeland and wildlife refuges.

He or she will be the water-master for more than 600 dams that bring water to 31 million Westerners and irrigate 60 percent of all the vegetables grown in the United States. The new secretary will also be responsible for 68 percent of the nation's oil and gas reserves and millions of acres of federal mining lands.

First, look at McCain. Would he keep Dirk Kempthorne? Kempthorne has helped repair the reputation of the Bush administration after Interior's lowest moments since the Teapot Dome scandal of Warren G. Harding's day. The convictions of Deputy Secretary Steve Griles for his dealings with corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the recent scandal uncovered in the Minerals Management Service, and the blatant meddling in scientific decisions on listing endangered species have undercut the integrity of the agency that has so much control over the West. This all happened on the watch of Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

Kempthorne has helped restore and grow funding for national parks, listed the polar bear as endangered, acknowledged the existence of climate change, taken responsibility to clean up the agency and improved employees' morale. And he has made the case that keeping him on through the transition would allow McCain to focus on the economy and other challenges.

Other contenders include Colorado Republican Sen. Wayne Allard, a states' rights advocate who is stepping down from the Senate, and Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican likely to lose to Democratic Rep. Tom Udall in a race for the Senate.

Neither one of these picks will make environmentalists happy, but Allard has supported some environmental projects in Colorado. If McCain wanted environmental support, he might step out of the West and pick GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has a great environmental record in the Senate. Or he might tap John Turner, the former assistant secretary of state for environmental affairs under Bush and the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under Bush’s father.

Another possibility is Marc Racicot, the former Montana governor. He led George Bush's transition team and the Republican Party until 2003. As governor, he was a peacemaker with environmentalists, advocating reintroduction of grizzly bears into the Selway Bitterroots.

One woman I would include in my list is current Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett. She was unscathed by the mismanagement under Norton and shares McCain's environmental, libertarian philosophy.

For Obama, California Democratic Rep. George Miller is a strong candidate. The former House Resources Committee chairman is an expert on Interior and has strong support among environmental groups. He buys into the new collaborative approach to public lands management.

Another possible contender is John Leshy, the former solicitor under Bruce Babbitt and Bill Clinton and a veteran of the Interior Department going back to the days of Cecil Andrus. Leshy, a professor of law at the Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, served as chief counsel under Miller on the Resources Committee.

Montana Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer would be the obvious choice, since he has become one of the West's leading voices on interior and energy issues. But Schweitzer has said he wants to stay in Montana, and he has a Republican lieutenant governor.

John Kitzhaber, the former Oregon governor, might be a long shot. He is the only major political figure in the Pacific Northwest to advocate breaching the four lower Snake dams in Washington to restore endangered salmon and steelhead.

Other names thrown out are Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, though he's likely to be up for several Cabinet posts, including secretary of State. There's also Rep. Jay Inslee of Washington and Colorado Rep. Mark Udall, though Udall is unlikely to lose to Republican Bob Schaffer for Allard's Senate seat.

Also on the list is Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. She's an expert on water issues and worked with other Western governors to seek collaborative positions on fire policy and climate change. If Obama wants to go outside of government, he might choose Sally Jewell, CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc. and a leader in the Initiative for Global Development, a group of business leaders seeking to end world poverty.

Yes, it’s a fun parlor game, but it has a serious purpose, because for the West, no other appointment is as important as secretary of the Interior.

Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the environmental writer for IdahoStatesman.com in Boise, Idaho.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].