By David Espo AP Special Correspondent
Washington (AP) — President George W. Bush selected Idaho Gov.
Dirk Kempthorne as Interior secretary on Thursday, choosing a
Westerner whose state is home to rich natural beauty as well as
great mineral wealth to become the next steward of millions of
acres of public land.
If confirmed by the Senate, the 54-year-old Kempthorne, a former
senator, would replace Gale Norton in the Cabinet. She resigned two
weeks ago after more than five years in office.
“Dirk understands that those who live closest to the land know
how to manage it best,” the president said, “and he will work
closely with state and local leaders to ensure wise stewardship of
our resources. Dirk has had a long and abiding love for
Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, who confirmed the nomination before
Bush’s announcement, said, “I have known and worked with Dirk for
many years. He is talented, energetic, and understands the issues
that surround public lands and endangered species.”
A Western Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, also
welcomed the choice. She said Kempthorne “understands the Northwest
and a lot of Interior issues” and had “stood up to the
administration” over nuclear waste cleanup.
Kempthorne served one term in the Senate, then retired to return
home and run for governor. He was elected in 1998, and easily won a
second term in 2004 with more than 55 percent of the vote in his
reliably Republican state.
Norton’s tenure was stormy at times, and her second-in-command,
Steven Griles, had a close relationship with disgraced Republican
lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Several e-mail exchanges between the two
men are now subjects of investigations by a Senate committee and
the Justice Department.
The Interior portfolio often generates controversy, usually with
developers clashing with environmentalists, and Norton’s successor
will have to deal with issues as diverse as a backlog of building
needs at the U.S. National Park system and the state of health care
on impoverished American Indian reservations.
Barring an unexpected complication, confirmation should be a
formality for Kempthorne. The Senate rarely turns down a former
member for the Cabinet, and Republicans hold the majority with 55
of 100 seats.
The Interior Department manages one of every five acres (two
hectares) in the United States, including 388 areas in the national
park system, 544 wildlife refuges and more than 260 million acres
(105 hectares) of multiple-use lands located mainly in 12 Western
For the past decade, the department has been embroiled in a
bitter lawsuit over the department’s responsibility for Indian
Kempthorne’s political career has touched on several land and
wildlife issues. Kempthorne sued the Bush administration over its
November 2000 decision to reintroduce grizzly bears into the
Bitterroot range, a proposal that was ultimately withdrawn in 2001
by the Fish and Wildlife Service.