Dirk Kempthorne made his career as a consensus-builder.
Now, he’s writing the main Senate legislation to reform the Endangered Species Act. If Kempthorne can find a consensus on this divisive issue, it’ll give him a national profile.
So far, the Republican senator is doing it the Kempthorne way. The week before last, his staff met quietly in Boise with more than a dozen representatives of industry and environmental groups to go over tentative wording.
The bill could be introduced as soon as Tuesday, or as late as two weeks from now. But so far, the reaction from Idaho doesn’t sound much like consensus: Industry loves Kempthorne’s bill, and conservation groups hate it.
“If the objective was to write a bill that we don’t like, he succeeded,” said Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League.
Kempthorne admits that his first draft goes nearly as far as measures proposed by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif. Both those bills call for massive changes in how the Endangered Species Act works, from allowing some species to go extinct to requiring the federal government to pay property owners if species protection affects their land values.
The Clinton administration has indicated it would veto both those bills.
Kempthorne says his bill will be different. It will focus on involving states, tribes and local governments in species protection. It will respect state water laws. It will balance the costs of recovering species against the benefits, with clear standards for the secretary of the Interior to follow in making a decision.
“First and foremost, you need to do what’s right,” Kempthorne said. “I want to write an Idaho bill that’s good for the nation, and I think I’ve done it.”
Kempthorne’s bill is still being revised, but indications from staffers and others are that it will include the following:
A decision to list a species as endangered would be based on science. Subsequent decisions on a species would also take into account economics, politics, conflicts with human activity and other factors.
An endangered species commission and assessment teams for each species would gather information for the secretary of the Interior. The secretary would have three choices: full recovery with unlimited cost and effort; conservation balanced with human and economic costs; or no federal action other than to prosecute those who intentionally kill the species or destroy its habitat.
The federal government would encourage states, tribes, local governments and private landowners to cooperate in conserving species. The feds would provide some funding.
Other incentives for property owners whose land is home to endangered species could include tax breaks and a credit system where harm to a species or its habitat in one location is made up elsewhere. The bill also includes a measure lifted from the Pombo bill to pay private landowners if species protection affects their property value. Kempthorne staffers said that clause was added last week for the sake of discussion; it could change.
Genetics would be the measure of diversity that helps define whether a species is going extinct.
Conservation groups worry that the focus on genetics could lead to Idaho losing its endangered grizzly bears, wolves and salmon. Those creatures all have close genetic cousins elsewhere that are not endangered.
Asked whether he thought his bill would save Idaho’s grizzlies, wolves and salmon, Kempthorne responded, “I don’t know why it would not.”
Industry groups are enthusiastic about Kempthorne’s efforts. “We’re very encouraged that the senator has gone as deeply into this thing as he has,” said Bob Sears, executive vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association.
Sears said he thought the focus on genetics would prevent what his group sees as unnecessary reintroduction of animals into areas they’ve left. “If we have a place where grizzlies were 100 years ago but they haven’t been for 30 or 40 years, you don’t necessarily package them up and ship ‘em down and reintroduce them.”
Jack Lyman, executive director of the Idaho Mining Association, said he likes the way Kempthorne’s bill lays out clear rules on how things will proceed. “The companies I represent often make multimillion-dollar … sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars of investment. It’s simply intolerable to have those rules constantly changing throughout that process.”
Kempthorne’s legislation also encourages voluntary efforts like land exchanges and captive breeding projects to help recover species.
Mark Solomon, acting executive director of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council and president of the Idaho Conservation League, worries that captive breeding could replace actual species recovery. “Does that mean that one could ignore the habitat discussion in the Bruneau Valley and simply take a thousand (threatened hot springs) snails and put them in a bathtub somewhere and keep the water warm?”
However, he called Kempthorne’s consultation with his and other groups “quite an extraordinary experience.”
“I believe it was a sincere reaching out to affected communities.”
When Kempthorne was mayor of Boise, he was known for bringing warring factions to common ground. Often, he did it by working quietly, behind the scenes, getting the parties together in a room to talk it out.
“He’s very witty, he’s very charming. He’s just very effective one-on-one,” said Jim Weatherby, a professor of public affairs at Boise State University who was the head of the Association of Idaho Cities when Kempthorne was mayor.
Weatherby noted that when Kempthorne was mayor, he had support from Democrats as well as Republicans. He was so popular that when he ran for re-election, no one ran against him - unheard of in Boise city politics.
“It was more like a coronation than an election,” Weatherby said.
But he added, “There’s not a Democratic or Republican way of paving a street.”
Though he’s only a freshman, Kempthorne has landed a key spot in the Senate as chairman of the Subcommittee on Drinking Water, Fisheries and Wildlife. That’s the committee that will consider the Endangered Species Act reauthorization.
A number of endangered species bills have been introduced in Congress, but those proposed by the committee heads who will hear them have the most clout.
Coming Monday: A pending rewrite of the National Forest Management Act may bring substantial changes to public lands.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BIG SPLIT Industry loves Kempthorne’s Endangered Species Act reform bill, and conservation groups hate it.