by Cara Cardner

While the country waits to find out who its new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator will be, the Sierra Club isn't holding its breath. Instead, it has released a tongue-in-cheek ad campaign, aimed at "helping" the Bush administration find the EPA's top cop.

The campaign, called "Earn $$$ While You Sleep!" calls for candidates "who are fluent in doublespeak," and who will "work late on Friday evenings when all potentially unpopular announcements are made." The ad reminds readers that "selection for this position will be based solely on merit without regard to race, color, religion, age, gender or interest in protecting America's natural heritage."

The cynicism hits a familiar chord for some environmentalists in the Inland Northwest. After weeks of speculation over whether Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne will leave office to take over the EPA, locals have decisively mixed views on the subject.

"Anyone seriously concerned about the environment would be concerned about Kempthorne's possible move to the head of the EPA," says Buell Hollister, board member and former president of Kootenai Environmental Alliance (KEA). "He has a real spotty record when it comes to protecting the environment."

Hollister should know. The KEA is one of the oldest environmental groups in Idaho, founded in 1972. The alliance works to protect Idaho's air, water, forestry and wildlife.

At the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, possibly one of the groups most affected by the prospect of losing Kempthorne as governor, officials remain optimistic.

"We have had a good working relationship with Governor Kempthorne," says Ernie Stensgar, tribal council chairman. "We've had some issues with him, and we obviously disagree with the stance he's taken on the Silver Valley, but we've been able to work together without animosity. I hope [if he goes to the EPA], the governor looks at all places equally and treats them all the same."

EPA representative John Iani, regional administrator for the Northwest division, says there's nothing to worry about. "I really look for what a guy does on the ground. With Kempthorne, it's always been that if there's a problem to solve, [he says] 'Let's figure it out.' It's a very Western approach, and that's how he does it."

Running the EPA is a big job that comes with heaps of criticism, no matter who you are or how hard you fight. But is Kempthorne the man for the job? Asking North Idaho environmentalists and business leaders their opinions about whether Kempthorne would make a good EPA administrator may be an accurate indication of how the country's environmentalists and business leaders will feel if he gets the position. While some local leaders are hesitant to speak openly about a leader who may get the call from the Bush administration in the fall, others are climbing up on the soapbox.

The Right Man for the Job? -- Many of those who work to protect Idaho's environment say Kempthorne stands consistently on the side of industry and that the idea of Kempthorne leading the EPA is like Jerry Falwell being asked to run America's efforts to separate church and state, or Bill Clinton being considered to head a governmental family values program. No one, however, is surprised.

"Is he an appropriate nominee? Absolutely not," says Chase Davis, regional representative for the Sierra Club in Eastern Washington. "But he is a good lapdog for the Bush administration."

"I think Kempthorne would conform nicely to the President's agenda," agrees Hollister of the KEA. "His [possible] appointment is consistent with the philosophy of Bush, who has no regard for the environment. He's worse than Reagan.

"He has shown he's not vigilant about pursuing cleanups or a good stewardship insofar as any environmental issue," Hollister continues. "He tried to weaken the Endangered Species Act when he was [a U.S.] Senator. Governor Kempthorne has been vigorously against the EPA being involved in the cleanup of the toxic waste in the Silver Valley -- that would be under his jurisdiction [if he ran the EPA], and I'm certainly not optimistic about his willingness to lead the cleanup. He's been instrumental in weakening the Superfund."

Iani disagrees, claiming Kempthorne has never opposed Idaho's Superfund cleanups, has worked right along with the EPA on cleanup plans and, in fact, has lead the nation's first environmental commissions to give input on the Coeur d'Alene Basin cleanup.

But Kempthorne publicly denounced the EPA in 2001, saying he was so frustrated with the agency he was close to asking them to leave Idaho altogether. Iani calls the public announcements about kicking the EPA out of Idaho "rhetoric," and says he's never felt Kempthorne was serious about wanting the EPA to leave.

Pondering Pend Oreille -- The EPA and environmentalists go back and forth over Kempthorne's environmental record, but current environmental concerns in Bonner County show Kempthorne in action.

"My fear is that the EPA may become very, very lax on enforcement," says Mary Mitchell, executive director of the Rock Creek Alliance (RCA). A community group based in Sandpoint, the RCA formed to fight Sterling Mining Company's proposed Rock Creek Mine in western Montana. Mitchell says the company wants to mine copper and silver in the Rock Creek drainage of the Cabinet Mountains, located in the lower Clark Fork basin, just 25 miles upstream from Lake Pend Oreille. Her group is concerned the mine could pollute the lake.

"Our goal is to stop this mine," Mitchell says. "We've got a broad constituency, including fisherman, realtors and kayak clubs from Idaho, Montana and Washington. The proposed mine has generated tremendous opposition here in Bonner County."

From blue collar to green-minded, the group opposed to this mine is non-partisan -- and it is huge. Both the City of Sandpoint and the Bonner County Commissioners have passed resolutions opposing the mine.

"There are no economic benefits for Bonner County," Mitchell explains. "It puts Lake Pend Oreille at risk, and that's so important to people here -- it's why people move here, why property values are what they are, recreation, fishery. All the people understand that."

Bonner County Commissioners, fearful of what the mine may do to the Sandpoint community, sent Governor Kempthorne a letter in 2001, asking him to stand by Bonner County and fight the western Montana mine.

"He has been in a position where he could raise concern," Mitchell says. "He has steadfastedly refused to get involved in the issue. He won't even meet with his constituents here in Bonner County."

Tom Suttmeier, a rancher and former Bonner County Commissioner, was one of the authors of the letter to Kempthorne. "I understand his position that he doesn't want to get involved in a state sovereignty issue, but it's not. It's a water-quality issue. To take all the risks and get nothing in return is not acceptable to the people in Bonner County. We are not pleased he didn't take a stronger stance. [Lake Pend Oreille] is not only essential, it's everything. To even think about possibly jeopardizing the water quality of the area is unthinkable."

Suttmeier says he respects Kempthorne and believes he's a good governor, but admits Kempthorne hasn't been the greatest leader when it comes to the environment. He says grass burning is another area where Kempthorne's stewardship falls short. "Being a farmer myself, I'm sympathetic to those who grow Kentucky Blue Grass, but the area has built up and there are far too many people living here now. Clearly it's an absolute danger for an awful lot of people."

Kempthorne has gotten involved with grass burning, working to protect growers by supporting and signing a bill that gives them immunity from the damage their smoke causes.

"That's not the whole story, though," says Iani. "That bill also provided severe penalties for growers who don't adhere to burning laws and a fee for the acres that [will] burn."

Iani makes an important point: Though Kempthorne isn't as green as some might like, he works on getting both industry leaders and environmentalists to compromise -- an element needed in many disputes about the environment.

Left in the Lurch -- The environmental issues have been front and center since Kempthorne's name emerged as a candidate for the EPA job, but what about concerns regarding what will happen to Idaho if the governor leaves office? What does it mean for the state?

"I don't really see any major changes," says Tony Berns, director of Coeur d'Alene's Lake City Development Corporation (LCDC). "If Kempthorne goes, we'll be losing an ally. He's been helpful."

Most other business and community leaders agree with Berns.

"It would be sad to lose a charismatic leader in the governor's office," admits second-term Idaho state Senator John Goedde (R-Coeur d'Alene). "But it would be good for North Idaho to have someone who understands the environmental situation in North Idaho and has seen the crazy things middle management and EPA has foisted on us."

Most agree that if Kempthorne leaves office, the transition between governors will be smooth.

"Our current Lt. Governor [Jim Risch] is a very experienced politician," says Goedde.

Dick Compton, who also represents Coeur d'Alene in the Idaho state Senate, agrees: "Risch has provided [Kempthorne] with a lot of advice and council, and for the most part their philosophies are similar."

"Jim Risch definitely qualifies," adds Suttmeier. "He's a businessman and a lawyer; he's well-schooled in politics and I think he'll do a fair job."

"I don't know much about his stance, "Hollister admits, "but I know he's strong and forceful and determined, so it could go either way. I know he made a very strong stance against Indian gaming, and that might not bode well for the tribes if he becomes governor."

The Coeur d'Alene Tribe is concerned. "Jim Risch certainly has been a foe of Indian gaming," notes Stensgar, the tribal council chairman. "If indeed he becomes governor, he's got to realize that he represents all Idahoans, and I hope he recognizes the treaty obligations and federal status that we have, and the sovereignty of the tribes."

Both Compton and Goedde agree that Risch may need to rethink his stance on Indian gaming if he becomes governor.

"That's an issue we've got to address," concedes Compton. "He's got to strike a more moderate approach to that."

"The Idaho citizens spoke clearly about Indian gaming in the last initiative," Stensgar points out. "And we'll continue to use our legal options in the best interest of the tribes and communities."

Goedde says Risch's stance on Indian gaming isn't helpful.

"It's kind of interesting because I believe the Lt. Governor was the sponsor of the first bill that expanded Indian gaming way back when," Goedde says. "We're in a position, and it's not just North Idaho, where the tribes are our economic partners. Kempthorne has certainly been able to keep the lines of communication open between the legislature and the tribes."

Though several community leaders admit to knowing little about Risch's positions, most say they doubt Idaho would see a dramatic change even if Kempthorne were to go.

"These positions are like stones in a pond," says Compton. "[Kempthorne leaving] would cause a ripple, but the water would flow back in and fill the void. The flow of Idaho would go right on. Life would not end."

Publication date: 07/03/03

Coeur d'Alene Street Fair @ Downtown Coeur d'Alene

Fri., July 30, 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat., July 31, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. and Sun., Aug. 1, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
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