WASHINGTON -- President Bush has written off environmental voters as lost to Republicans, which isn't the same as saying he means to throw mud in their eyes. But if he did, that mud's name would be Dirk Kempthorne.
In nominating Kempthorne to succeed Gale Norton as the next secretary of the Interior, Bush ensured that public lands will continue to be harvested for commercial purposes, while somewhat increasing the chances for reduced national standards in air and water quality. As a U.S. senator for Idaho from 1993 to 1999, Kempthorne did nothing to impress environmental monitoring organizations, batting little better than .000 on their scorecard of votes cast. These critics say he slackened regulations in the Safe Drinking Water Act and tried to do the same for the Endangered Species Act, all in the service of commercial interests clamoring for less regulation.
During Kempthorne's early years as the current governor of Idaho, the Knight-Ridder news agency reported, toxic emissions in the state increased measurably at the same time they declined by almost 10 percent nationwide. Environmental inspections were minimal as he repeatedly cut the state's environmental budget, and he threatened to evict officials of the Environmental Protection Agency from Idaho altogether.
Kempthorne's leading political donors have been energy, mining and timber corporations.
Tribes in Idaho gave him mixed reviews. Nez Perce Chairman Rebecca Miles said her tribe and Kempthorne had a good working relationship as, along with the federal government, they ironed out water rights in the Snake River Basin Adjudication. (The majority of contacts between the tribe and the governor were before Miles' tenure as chairman, which started in May of 2005.)
The complex adjudication enabled the state and tribe to avoid returning to water rights litigation. Then-Nez Perce Chairman Anthony Johnson praised the adjudication process for providing the tribe with a genuine decision-making voice at the table. He described the settlement as far from perfect but the best possible for the long-term interests of the tribe.
In March 2005, he became the last of three sovereigns to sign the settlement, a milestone in modern-day Nez Perce sovereignty. The lengthy adjudication process, which preceded his term as governor, gave Kempthorne a reputation as a consensus-builder.
In April 2005, the Nez Perce and the Kempthorne administration in Idaho also reached a management agreement on the reintroduction to the state of the gray wolf. Here again he gets good reviews from the Nez Perce.
The Shoshone-Bannock in Idaho have a different perception. According to Chairman Blaine Edmo, the tribe negotiated an agreement with the governor on minimum in-stream flows in off-reservation ancestral salmon streams. The government agreed to sign it, Edmo said, adding that he was an eyewitness to Kempthorne's words, only two seats away from him when made his pledge. The tribe had two non-substantive, technical changes to make in the agreement, fully understood by both sides to the negotiation.
The tribe's attorney delivered the document the next day, but the governor "recanted" on his agreement to sign. With a court deadline upon them, the Shoshone-Bannock withdrew their agreement from the consideration of the court. Unbeknownst to the tribe, Edmo said, its case was dismissed "with prejudice," meaning it cannot be reopened.
Edmo said Kempthorne's last-minute recantation cost the tribe an annual spring chinook salmon run, of incalculable value in the tribal culture.
Since his nomination to Interior, Kempthorne has declined to comment on anything that might come up at his confirmation hearing before Congress. His press secretary in Idaho, Mike Journee, declined to respond to Edmo's assertions "one way or the other."
He said Kempthorne is a master of the media, having worked as a high executive in marketing for FMC Corp., a phosphorous production giant. "He can charm the socks off a snake but when it comes right down to it, he's for the corporations and the polluters. He's going to be bad for the environment."
FMC has gone through litigation over one of its plants on the Fort Hall reservation of the Shoshone-Bannock.
The tribe has tried to get the governor to negotiate a compact for off-reservation gaming. Kempthorne rejected the approach. He has negotiated gaming compacts with other tribes in the state.
As with any Cabinet nominee, Bush sent his pick off to Senate confirmation hearings with glowing praise. "Dirk has a long and abiding love of nature ... Dirk understands that those who live closest to the land know how to manage it best, and he will work closely with state and local interests to ensure wise stewardship of our resources."
Tribes can only hope 'local' is a presidential euphemism for them, too.
Kempthorne, a former senator, has maintained friendships and connections on Capitol Hill, from all accounts. Barring unforeseen controversy, his elevation to the helm at Interior is considered certain. If the expectation holds, he'll oversee one-fifth of all U.S. lands, more than two-thirds of fuel reserves, Indian schools and tribal gaming-related land applications. And in case it doesn't occur to him before he accepts one of the toughest jobs in government, the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit over federal mismanagement of Indian trust funds is about to be renamed Cobell v. Kempthorne.