For Interior, a collaborative conservative

Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, likely to win Senate nod to lead the department, wins credit for his approach if not his policies.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Dirk Kempthorne, President Bush's nominee to the head the Interior Department, has both the experience and the record of collaboration that could help smooth the way in the often-contentious position.

As governor of Idaho, a former US senator, and mayor of Boise before that, Mr. Kempthorne is known to work in concert with those who don't agree with him. He believes that the level of government closest to a problem is the best place to find a solution. And though his environmental record - according to those who score such things - is a pale shade of green, he is not a fire-breathing ideologue likely to dismiss endangered species in the name of corporate ranching or a new highway.

"I've been dealing with this guy for years," says Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League. "He's not overtly anti-environment. He is overtly states' rights."

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The West, for all its wide-open spaces where most of Interior's 500 million acres of responsibility lie, in fact is becoming the most urban region of the country. Cities like Boise, growing rapidly, are more conservation-minded than in the past, says Mr. Johnson. As a result, many newcomers to the West value environmental quality - something reflected in some of Kempthorne's policies.

Most national environmental groups blast the nominee as "an unabashed champion of the resource-extraction and development interests that profit most from public lands," as Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, put it. But Kempthorne has already won praise from some prominent Democrats. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), who chairs the Western Governors' Association, warmly congratulated him. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) of Washington noted that Kempthorne had "stood up to the administration" over nuclear-waste cleanup at a federal facility in Idaho. He has many friends in the United States Senate, which is expected to confirm his nomination.

Still, the Bush administration and Kempthorne face battles over many issues: development in roadless forest areas; salvage logging of burned timber; the proposed sale of some federal land to lessen the federal budget deficit; changes to the Endangered Species Act; a huge backlog in national parks maintenance; oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Outer Continental Shelf; and protections for grizzly bears, wolves, and other recovering species.

As the likely new "landlord" over national parks and wilderness areas, water reclamation projects, and vast rangelands where cattle graze and new gas and oil wells have sprouted under Mr. Bush, Kempthorne will be in the thick of the fray.

National parks could be an especially difficult issue. The mammoth National Park Service, part of Interior, oversees 388 parks, monuments, battlefields, historic sites, lakeshores, scenic rivers, and trails. The number of park units has nearly doubled since 1970, and annual visits now total almost 300 million.

"One thing he did in Idaho was try to get more resources for parks," says Craig Obey, vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association. "Hopefully, he will try to carry that ahead nationally."

It's a big load to carry. The parks' maintenance backlog is between $4.5 billion and $9.7 billion, estimates the Congressional Research Service.

Meanwhile, the administration is trying to open some parks to more commercial activities, such as snowmobiling in Yellowstone. Its parks management plan, critics say, deemphasizes natural-resource protection in favor of commerce and recreation - which could increase traffic, air pollution, and other adverse impacts.

"That could be potentially devastating to the parks, depending on how it turns out," says Mr. Obey. The 500-member Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, too, has expressed concern. Last month, the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility sued the department for refusing to give details of industry lobbying efforts regarding national parks policies.

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