Gale Norton resigned earlier this month as secretary of the Interior Department amid charges of uncollected royalties from oil drillers and questions about her connections with Jack Abramoff and his lobbying on behalf of Indian tribes. But she was supported by the industries -- including mining, timber, and energy -- that enjoyed the carte blanche she gave them to exploit the nation's public lands.
Dirk Kempthorne, the Idaho governor nominated by President Bush to succeed Norton, is clear-cut from the same cloth. His one term of service in the Senate and his sympathy for the antienvironmental views of its Republican majority should guarantee him an easy confirmation.
But senators should use the hearing process to grill him closely on the missing royalties, lobbyist influence in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and proposed new policies for the National Park Service that would encourage use of the parks by off-road-vehicle riders. So far, he has taken no position on a Bush administration plan to sell thousands of acres from the Bureau of Land Management, which Interior controls, and the Forest Service. Senators should get his view on this and also try to extract a commitment from him to fight for funding to defray the national parks' maintenance backlog, which the Congressional Research Service recently pegged as high as $9.7 billion. Also, has this month's biggest-ever oil spill on Alaska's North Slope weakened his support for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, as it should?
Throughout his career, Kempthorne has built a consistent record of opposing limits on development. At Interior, he would have responsibility for the Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency that he, as senator, tried to strip of authority in deciding how to enforce the Endangered Species Act. As governor, he once threatened to throw the federal Environmental Protection Agency out of Idaho when it proposed to list polluted mines there as a Superfund site. He also backed Bush's repeal of Bill Clinton's signal conservation achievement, the designation of about a third of all Forest Service land to be forever roadless. In his last campaign as governor, Kempthorne received a larger percentage of his campaign contributions from the timber, mining, and energy industries than any other Western gubernatorial candidate.
According to Philip Clapp, the president of the Washington-based National Environmental Trust, Bush ''could not have chosen a more divisive nominee." Polls showing majority support to protect the Arctic refuge and enforce toxic cleanups indicate he would indeed be a divisive secretary, but, within a Republican Party that has long abandoned the conservation ethic that Theodore Roosevelt embodied, Kempthorne seems at home.
© 2006 The Boston Globe