By Associated Press
and Express Staff
WASHINGTON -- President Bush selected Dirk Kempthorne as Interior secretary Thursday, saying the Idaho governor brings wide experience to the job of managing the nation's parks, public lands and natural resources.
If confirmed by the Senate, the 54-year-old Kempthorne—himself a former senator—would replace Gale Norton in the Cabinet. She resigned last week 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."
Making a case for Kempthorne as a nature lover, Bush said, "When he and his wife, Patricia, were married, they chose to hold the ceremony atop Idaho's Moscow Mountain at sunrise."
"Dirk said, `I don't think there's a more beautiful cathedral than the outdoors,' " Bush said, Kempthorne at his side.
Kempthorne, a former mayor of Boise, declared, "God bless America the beautiful. I would be honored to serve this land."
Bush praised Norton as the first woman to lead the Interior Department and said she had been instrumental in establishing an initiative to protect communities from catastrophic wildfire. He said she also helped lead efforts to restore off-shore energy production after Hurricane Katrina.
"Future generations of Americans will be able to enjoy our great national parks and wildlife refuges because of Gale's untiring work," the president said.
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 2002 with more than 55 percent of the vote in his reliably Republican, conservative state.
Norton's tenure was a stormy one 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 the subject of investigations by a Senate committee and the Justice Department.
The Interior portfolio often generates controversy - developers clashing with environmentalists - and Norton's successor will have to deal with issues as diverse as a backlog of building needs at the National Park system and the state of health care on impoverished Indian Reservations.
Linn Kincannon, central Idaho director of the Idaho Conservation League's office in Ketchum, said people should expect "more of the same."
She added that the one bright spot is that Kempthorne is more moderate than Norton.
"He's a Westerner, but he's not a rural Westerner, he's an urban Westerner," Kincannon said. "He's not going to come at these issues from the same rural perspective.
"He's not going to strike off in a new direction, but he doesn't have that kind of ideology (Norton had)."
Kincannon said it also doesn't hurt that Kempthorne is a proponent of state's rights.
"He knows that Idaho is not as rural a state as it used to be," she said. "He knows Idahoans like wilderness, and a lot of Idahoans like wolves. He will look at what the state is interested in, and he'll be more interested in what the state wants."
Kempthorne would be the second Idaho governor to serve in the post. Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, a Democrat, served as Interior Secretary under President Jimmy Carter.
However, Andrus said Tuesday he would not support Kempthorne for the post unless Kempthorne opposes a Bush administration plan to sell federal lands in Idaho. Andrus said he would support someone from the western United States who opposes the plan to sell 309,000 acres of federal land, including 26,000 acres in Idaho.
"What it would take for him to get my support would be for him to look me in the eye and tell me he would oppose the selling of public lands," Andrus told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
But, barring an unexpected complication, confirmation should be a formality for Kempthorne. The Senate rarely turns down one of its former members for the Cabinet, and Republicans hold the majority with 55 of 100 seats.
The Interior Department manages one of every five acres in the United States, including 388 areas in the national park system, 544 wildlife refuges and more than 260 million acres of multiple-use lands located mainly in 12 Western states.
It also manages 824 dams and reservoirs, administers protections for endangered species and works with 562 federally recognized Indian tribes. For the past decade, the department has been embroiled in a bitter lawsuit over the department's responsibility for Indian trust money.
At home in Idaho, Kempthorne spent the past year pushing for more state parks and revamping and expanding the road systems with money raised from bonds.
As leader of the National Governors Association, Kempthorne emphasized the challenge of providing long-term health care, citing his experience with his own parents.
Born in San Diego, he grew up in Spokane, Wash., graduated from the University of Idaho in 1975 and worked for FMC Corp. and the Idaho Homebuilders Association before being elected mayor of Boise in 1986.
He served as mayor until 1993, going on to serve six years in the U.S. Senate.
His political career has touched on several land and wildlife issues. Kempthorne has sued the Bush administration over its November 2000 decision to reintroduce grizzlies into the Bitterroot range, a proposal that was ultimately withdrawn in 2001 by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. He was also part of a four-state salmon recovery effort, working with Indian tribes in the region as well as the Northwest Power Planning Council.