President Bush nominated Kempthorne for the position on March 16. The U.S. Senate likely will take action on the nomination in early May, according to Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo. Kempthorne, a Republican finishing his second term as governor, served in Washington, D.C., as one of Idaho's U.S. senators from 1993 to 1998.
"I expect no difficulty," Crapo says. "But you never can predict. It's a highly partisan, bitter climate."
Secretary of the Interior is a prominent cabinet position that's drawing major attention, particularly in Idaho, ever since Bush proposed the sale of public lands to help cover federal support of rural schools and roads. The proposal includes 25,000 acres of national forest land in Idaho. Bush's proposal also includes the sale of 500,000 acres of land under Bureau of Land Management direction to raise money to reduce the federal deficit. Nearly 100,000 acres of that BLM land is in Idaho.
"As a member of the president's cabinet, you have the opportunity, as I know from experience, to voice opinions and politics, to zap a stupid decision like that," says former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, who served as Secretary of the Interior under President Jimmy Carter. "We'll see what Dirk does."
The land-sale proposals have generated resounding protests throughout Idaho from people of all political philosophies. The state Legislature was one vote shy of unanimous in its opposition to the sales. Idaho's congressional delegation has expressed its opposition as well.
A month after Bush proposed the sales, he nominated Kempthorne, who grew up in Spokane, to become Secretary of the Interior. Many Idahoans quickly pinned their hopes for the preservation of the state's public lands to that nomination.
"The one issue Idahoans are most united on is preserving public lands," says Tony Stewart, a North Idaho College political science professor. "I hope Gov. Kempthorne can encourage the administration to forget the idea."
So does Susan Drumheller, the Idaho Conservation League's North Idaho staffer. ICL works to protect the quality of the state's environment. As Interior secretary, Kempthorne will have a major role in the BLM acreage Idaho has at stake. That idea fills Drumheller with both concern and hope.
"We're hopeful that Governor Kempthorne will protect Idaho's natural heritage by not allowing federal land to be sold off to lower the federal deficit," she says. "We're somewhat heartened he'll be in office, because we think he'll be responsive to the people of Idaho."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & daho's population is split on just how responsive Kempthorne is. As governor, Kempthorne pushed to expand and improve the state park system. This year's Legislature gave his plan a partial thumbs-up, agreeing to add less than half of his state park improvements to the new budget.
Kempthorne also sued the federal government to stop the reintroduction of 25 grizzly bears into the Bitterroot wilderness and was part of a multi-state effort to help endangered salmon without removing dams. He lobbied for state management of wolves and followed those efforts with a proposal to kill several dozen for the sake of protecting cattle and sheep.
He fought the Clinton administration plan to keep roads out of federal wilderness areas and promoted greater state control over the management of endangered species.
"Dirk is a states' rights, private-sector-solution-type guy who understands the important role government has in implementing the laws of our nation with regard to the management of our resources," says Crapo.
The man Crapo described is exactly the one the Intermountain Forest Association wants as Interior secretary, says IFA President Jim Riley. Based in Coeur d'Alene, IFA is an organization of wood products manufacturers, forestland owners and related businesses. "I think he'll make an excellent Secretary of the Interior," Riley says. "In his two terms as governor, he was on the forefront of trying to advance locally led, voluntary conservation programs for endangered species. His work in that respect has been quite innovative and pioneering."
Riley believes salmon management has a chance at a resolution with Kempthorne heading Interior. The controversial issue has raged in and out of courtrooms for years. Kempthorne's ability to build consensus among diverse interest groups will help, Riley says.
"We can do a lot of good for fish as well as settle the controversy if people look at what we can do together rather than fight," he says.
Mark Sprengel, executive director of the Selkirk Conservation Alliance, isn't as optimistic as Riley. The Alliance works to protect the old-growth forests and wildlife habitats in the Selkirk Mountains in the Idaho Panhandle.
"Kempthorne has established his record pretty well. He's worked against the environment every time he's had the opportunity," Sprengel says. "He had ample opportunity to lead in the state of Idaho and establish a track record as an environmentally progressive state, and he failed to do so, and I don't know that that will change."
The Alliance didn't like Kempthorne's support of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park or his proposal for voluntary conservation programs for endangered species. "He's consistent with the Bush administration, and that's why he was nominated," Sprengel says. "It's felt he'll be tractable and go along with the administration agenda."
Andrus is encouraged that Bush nominated a Westerner to lead the Department of Interior, but he believes that fact alone isn't enough to ensure Kempthorne can do a good job.
"If he wants to be aggressive and constructive, there are things he can do," Andrus says. "Or he can be a caretaker and take orders from Karl Rove. Bush has never demonstrated any concern for public lands and where we live. Rove calls the shots. Is Dirk man enough to stand up to him and the West Wing?"
As Secretary of the Interior, Andrus doubled the total acreage of national parks and wilderness area in the nation. His work ensured the preservation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Department of Interior is one of the largest divisions in the federal government. The Interior secretary manages one-third of the total land area in the contiguous United States, and most of that land is west of the Mississippi River. As secretary, Kempthorne would be responsible for 600 dams, 1,265 threatened or endangered species and 68 percent of the nation's oil and gas reserves.
"It's important that the secretary of the interior understands the customs and cultures of the western United States, how we live and recreate," Andrus says.
Kempthorne's attraction to the outdoors is no secret. He mountain-biked with Bush on his favorite Idaho trails. He rides a motorcycle. Few Idahoans have concerns about his outdoor recreational activities. They're concerned about his management of the outdoors.
"He'll be a good fit for the Bush administration," says Barry Rosenberg, executive director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance in Coeur d'Alene. The KEA works to protect and restore the Coeur d'Alene River basin and the Idaho Panhandle environment. "I have no hope of the Bush administration taking an enlightened stance on environmental issues," says Rosenberg. "Is Kempthorne part of that administration? Yes."
Kempthorne's lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service to stop implementation of the roadless rule in wilderness areas didn't sit well with the KEA. Neither did his support as a senator for oil drilling in the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge. And Kempthorne really irritated the KEA when he protested the Environmental Protection Agency's involvement in Shoshone County's cleanup of a century of silver mining. An investigation the state's two senators commissioned following Kempthorne's protest supported the EPA.
As far as Crapo is concerned, Idaho should celebrate Kempthorne's nomination to a federal cabinet position. Crapo met with Kempthorne on April 5 as the governor renewed acquaintances on Capitol Hill. The senator pledged to Kempthorne his best effort to move Kempthorne's nomination forward.
As Interior secretary, Kempthorne could help Idaho culminate five years of work to meet all the demands on 3.5 million acres of public land in the corner of it that Idaho shares with Oregon and Nevada. Ranchers, conservationists, county officials and recreationists collaborated to create the Owyhee Initiative that designates parts of the canyonlands for wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, livestock grazing and managed motorized recreation.
"I'm introducing legislation on that soon, and Dirk very possibly will have to recuse himself because it deals with the state he's from. But his presence will help the department and administration in general be very sympathetic and responsive to it," Crapo says.
He believes Idahoans should have faith in Kempthorne as Interior secretary because Kempthorne is one of them. Even the KEA's Rosenberg has his hopeful moments about Kempthorne's probable appointment. But they don't last long.
"He seemed to intimate that he might be opposed to the public land sales," Rosenberg says, adding he doesn't think the plans to sell off public lands will change.
"I think anyone would say Bush has a pretty dismal environmental record. If Kempthorne gets enlightened and can turn that around, more power to him," Rosenberg adds. "But I don't think he would have been chosen if he didn't go along with the administration."