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.
"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. Dirk has had a long and abiding love for nature."
Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho said he was pleased with the president's choice.
"I have known and worked with Dirk for many years. He is talented, energetic, and understands the issues that surround public lands and endangered species," Craig told reporters.
If confirmed by the Senate, Kempthorne — himself a former senator — would replace Gale Norton in the Cabinet. She resigned last week after more than five years in office.
Norton resigned last Friday after five years in Bush's Cabinet, at a time when her agency was part of a lobbying scandal over Indian gaming licenses.
Bush, accepting her resignation, called Norton a strong advocate for "the wise use and protection of our nation's natural resources."
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.
Barring an unexpected complication, confirmation should be a formality for Kempthorne, who served one term in the Senate before returning to Idaho to serve two terms as governor. He has said he would not run again in the election this year. 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.
Kempthorne has spent the past year pushing for more state parks and revamping and expanding the road systems with money raised from bonds. In the last legislative session, he vetoed several bills until his road bill was approved, essentially stopping the legislative process until he got his way.
As leader of the National Governors Association, Kempthorne emphasized the challenge of providing long-term health care, citing his experience with his own parents.
Kempthorne is a graduate of the University of Idaho. He and his wife, Patricia, have two grown children.
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.