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The Environmental Record of Bush's Pick for Interior

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne is President Bush's pick to succeed Gayle Norton as Secretary of the Interior. He's not expected to have too much trouble at his confirmation hearings next month, and business and environmental groups are trying to predict what he'll do if he gets his new post.

Elizabeth Wynne Johnson reports.

ELIZABETH WYNNE JOHNSON: Dirk Kempthorne isn't saying much about what he would hope to accomplish as secretary of the interior, but that doesn't stop interest groups from speculating about it, Rick Johnson is head of the Idaho Conservation League.

RICK JOHNSON: He is being brought in to keep a steady hand on the tiller which in many issues I care about is not exactly good news. I would say it could have been a lot worse.

WYNNE JOHNSON: Kempthorne has supported logging in national forests and drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. He's been called Gayle Norton in pants, but Johnson says that shortchanges where he's really coming from philosophically.

WYNNE JOHNSON: Dirk Kempthorne does not bring and anti-environment agenda to this. He brings a states' rights agenda to this.

WYNNE JOHNSON: Which is why when the president introduced his choice for the nation's top environmental oversight post he had this to say --

GEORGE W: 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 leaders to ensure wise stewardship of our resources.

WYNNE JOHNSON: Veteran political watcher Jim Weatherby says his state's governor has a mixed record that isn't easy to pin down.

JIM WEATHERBY: From our viewpoint here in Idaho, and granted this is a conservative state, Dirk Kempthorne is a centrist, not the extreme variety of James Watt perhaps as secretary of the interior, but very pro-business and pro-development.

WYNNE JOHNSON: One subject that tends to pit economic and development interests squarely against conservation groups is salmon recovery. The survival of the species is in question largely thanks to a system of dams that the nation as a whole now depends on.

As head of the agency that's ultimately responsible for directing endangered species policy, Kempthorne could have a lasting impact. As governor he's criticized the federal government for failing to put a salmon recovery plan in place. But Roger Singer, who represents the Northwest for the Sierra Club, says words aren't enough.

ROGER SINGER: The clock is ticking. With three years left of a Bush administration, will he step up to the plate to finally take responsibility for protecting this Northwest icon? Will Interior Secretary Kempthorne actually follow through on the points that were made by Governor Kempthorne?

WYNNE JOHNSON: Environmentalists worry that Kempthorne will actually try to weaken the Endangered Species Act. Singer believes Kempthorne has reduced opportunities for scientific input in matters of species protection, including salmon.

SINGER: And so the policies of Governor Kempthorne are going to then mesh unfortunately all too well with the policies of the Bush administration hand to glove. I guess you could say it's the perfect storm of anti-conservation policies that could potentially coming together.

WYNNE JOHNSON: Still others say Kempthorne isn't ignoring scientific input so much as taking it with a dose of skepticism. Bob Lohn is head of the northwest region for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

BOB LOHN: I think problems tend to be neither purely scientific nor purely policy problems, and I expect him to be very pragmatic about how he finds solution.

WYNNE JOHNSON: When Kempthorne sits down for his Senate hearings, it will be as a member in good standing of the beltway-insider club. As a former Senator he's been described as a likely confirmation that won't drain the president's dwindling political capital. But according to Jerry Johnson with the Montanabased Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, which takes a marketbased approach to conservation, Kempthorne isn't anyone's slam dunk.

JERRY JOHNSON: These political appointments are sort of like Supreme Court Justices, they have a track record, they've been on the job in these areas, but you don't what they're gonna do when they get into office.

WYNNE JOHNSON: The Senate confirmation hearings for Dirk Kempthorne as Secretary of the Interior are expected to take place in May.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Wynne Johnson in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.