New boss, same as the old boss

When Gale Norton was named to head the Interior Department, there was at least a little room to hope she would prove to be the consensus-building, innovative executive of her self-description. That was back in the naive days leading up to George W. Bush’s first inaugural, before the nation saw how thoroughly the new president would abandon the moderate pretenses of his campaign in favor of extremist, autocratic policies — especially in regard to natural resources.

No such ambiguity attaches to Norton’s successor, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho. He is a Westerner’s Westerner, a homebuilder’s association executive turned career politician, a development man all the way. In the U.S. Senate and his statehouse, Kempthorne has been — like Norton — an affable advocate for managing federal lands in favor of the local loggers, miners, ranchers and motor-recreation types who best know how to make a buck from them.

This background is what the president was citing when he praised Kempthorne as someone “who understands that those who live closest to the land know how to manage it best.” And when Bush said his nominee “will work closely with state and local leaders to ensure wise stewardship of our resources,” he was pledging that Kempthorne would build on Norton’s record of favoring greater industrial use of Interior’s vast acreage _ more snowmobiling in Yellowstone, more gas drilling in national monuments and, some fine day, opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil production.

Happily, that acreage does not include land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the Agriculture Department. Kempthorne has been a leading opponent of protecting the last roadless areas in the national forests, and filed one of the lawsuits that gave the Bush administration political cover for reversing course. On the other hand, he will have the Bureau of Land Management, which doesn’t get much attention outside the West but whose extensive lands are perpetual fields of battle between conservation values and commercial use.

Unlike Bruce Babbitt, who was Bill Clinton’s Interior secretary, or James Watt, who was Ronald Reagan’s, Kempthorne is unlikely to have much authorship of administration policy. That work has already been done, and not so much by Norton as Dick Cheney.

All the White House wants at Interior is a secretary who can be counted on to continue the giveaways and to keep a straight face while extolling its nonexistent conservation values. That’s just what it got from Gale Norton, and just what we can expect from Dirk Kempthorne.

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