HARRISON, Idaho – Tribal leaders in Idaho have offered their opinions to the state’s congressional delegation on the confirmation of Gov. Dirk Kempthorne as secretary of the Interior Department.
The Coeur d’Alene and Nez Perce tribes say they have a positive working relationship with Kempthorne, but the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes declined to endorse his nomination.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe issued a letter of support to Sen. Mike Crapo April 13 and offered its assistance, “in any way possible,” toward his expeditious confirmation.
Coeur d’Alene Chairman Chief Allan cited the governor’s proven record of public service and immersion in issues concerning public lands and natural resources, as well as a good working relationship with the tribal government.
“The tribe has worked constructively with Mr. Kempthorne on a wide range of issues including environmental concerns, governmental regulation, education and gaming,” Allan wrote.
“While we may not have always agreed on every issue that we addressed with Mr. Kempthorne, we have constructed a mutually beneficial relationship marked by open dialogue and free exchange of ideas.”
For example, the governor approved the establishment of a 72-mile recreational bike trail across north Idaho, a project promoted by the tribe as a way of cleaning up mining contamination along an abandoned railroad corridor, 15 miles of which traverse the reservation.
Negotiations included state, tribe, railroad and EPA officials, and bicycling enthusiasts are calling the trail one of the best in the nation.
The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes haven’t fared as well under Kempthorne’s leadership.
Tribal Chairman Blaine Edmo said the governor is pro-industry and lacks a demonstrated commitment to environmental protection and tribal trust responsibility.
As an example, he said Kempthorne supported the federal budget proposal to raise money for county schools and roads by selling national forest lands.
“If he had his way he’d sell the whole works and stand there and tell you he’s doing the best he could,” Edmo said. “To be quite frank with you, I think he’d do whatever he can to please George Bush.”
Kempthorne’s credibility doesn’t go far with Edmo, who said he recanted on an agreement with the tribe regarding critical minimum instream flows to protect habitat for fish and wildlife on aboriginal lands.
“During the course of the negotiations we were led to believe by the governor that he was going to accept the negotiated settlement we had prepared and discussed with his legal staff at length,” Edmo said.
The tribe’s business council and attorneys reached a verbal agreement with the governor, who surprised them by failing to follow through in the final hour.
“We prepared the documents and the council signed them on behalf of the tribe, and forwarded it to the governor to sign,” he said.
Kempthorne never did so, nor did he provide a clear reason why, Edmo said.
The situation left a particularly bitter taste because, with the agreement imminent, the tribe withdrew from a related court case which was subsequently dismissed with prejudice, meaning the issue cannot be reopened.
“As far as trust responsibility [goes], I don’t think Indian tribes can look forward to much with Mr. Kempthorne,” Edmo said. “It’s like putting the fox in the henhouse, so to speak.”
The Nez Perce leadership has tallied some successes with the governor. In addition to reaching a wolf management plan, the tribe appreciated having a meaningful voice at the table during long and complex Snake River water rights negotiations, which led to a settlement the tribe can live with. It is building on the relationship to encourage Kempthorne to improve communications with Indian governments around the nation.
“The Nez Perce Tribe pledges to assist Governor Kempthorne in his transition to the secretary position and offers its support to the administration in developing relationships in Indian country,” according to a tribal resolution passed by the executive committee March 28.
Kempthorne’s office has prided itself on maintaining open lines of communication with the state’s Indian tribes; but he also leaned to the side of industry and local control in the matter of massive metals contamination from mining in north Idaho’s Silver Valley, saying he wanted to ask the EPA to leave Idaho.
The issue is of vital importance to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, which invests heavily in cleanup and management efforts because their ancestral land and parts of the reservation are polluted by one of the most expansive Superfund mining sites in the nation.
Also, during the state’s attempt to collect taxes on motor fuel sold on reservations, Kempthorne favored legislation aimed at overturning a state Supreme Court decision that ruled on the side of the tribes.
The Kootenai Tribe and Shoshone Paiutes could not be reached for comment.