March 11, 2006 in Nation/World

Kempthorne on short list to lead Interior Department

Juliet Eilperin Washington Post
The Spokesman-Review photo

(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – Gale Norton, who as secretary of the interior reopened Yellowstone National Park to snowmobiles and pushed for greater energy development on public land, announced Friday she would relinquish her post by the end of the month.

Norton won plaudits from business leaders but earned the enmity of many environmentalists during her often contentious five-year tenure. She said she had no immediate plans but planned to work in the private sector and spend more time out West.

“I look forward to visiting a national park and not holding a press conference in there,” said Norton, who turns 52 today and has served at Interior longer than all but six of her predecessors. “I look forward to being able to contemplate the wilderness without having reporters and their notebooks following me.”

With Norton calling it quits, some groups in Washington, D.C., say an informal short list of possible replacements has already emerged, including Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

Others mentioned by lobbyists and conservationists as possible nominees include former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, former U.S. Rep. Scott McGinnis, R-Colo., former U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, and Assistant Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett, Norton’s No. 2 aide.

“When the news came out about Norton, everyone started speculating on who the next secretary might be and Gov. Kempthorne’s name immediately comes up,” said David Alberswerth of The Wilderness Society. “He probably is the sort of person this administration would look for and he was very popular when he was a senator among both Democrats and Republicans, so he wouldn’t have any trouble getting confirmed.”

Kempthorne, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1993 to 1998, is finishing his final year as governor. In January, Kempthorne told a gathering of Idaho business leaders he’s in the “glide slope” of his final year and has begun “looking at his options” for future employment.

Norton’s resignation comes as a federal criminal task force continues to investigate Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s dealings with her department. The task force is examining, among other issues, former Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles’ discussions with Abramoff at a time when the lobbyist was seeking departmental actions on behalf of his tribal clients.

Norton said that probe did not play a role in her decision to step down, adding later, “I want to return to having a private life again.”

A Kansas native who moved to Colorado at 5, Norton spoke often about her love of wilderness and went canoeing with Washington, D.C.-area schoolchildren to promote outdoor recreation. But environmentalists decried several of her policies, including allowing snowmobiling that has prompted endangered woodland caribou to flee Idaho for Canada, and failing to reduce a National Park Service maintenance backlog that may total $9.7 billion.

Norton played more of a bad-cop role in her dealings Western states squabbling over the region’s scarce water supply, forcing California to give up some of its supply from the Colorado River.

Like other members of President Bush’s cabinet, Norton pressed repeatedly for greater domestic oil and gas drilling. Friday, she touted the government’s track record of boosting natural gas production on federal lands by 17 percent between 2001 and 2004.

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