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Kempthorne promises smooth transition at Interior

Mon., Jan. 5, 2009, 7:28 p.m.

BOISE - Outgoing U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said today that he’s already had discussions with his successor, Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, and he promised a “smooth transition” at the Department of the Interior.

“The president made it very clear in the cabinet meeting that we had the day after the election that this transition is going to be smooth, professional, we’re going to do everything we possibly can, because we want the next administration to be successful. If they are successful, America is successful,” Kempthorne told a large Boise audience at what he said is likely his last formal speech as interior secretary.

He praised Salazar as “someone that is a good listener, he comes from the West - I believe people will like him. I think he’s a positive choice.”

Addressing the Boise City Club and the Idaho Environmental Forum, Kempthorne reflected back on a career in public service that took him from mayor of Boise to U.S. senator to twice-elected Idaho governor, and then to President George W. Bush’s cabinet. “I did not set out to become a cabinet secretary,” he said.

But once he arrived there, he said, his experience in Idaho stood him well. “I had a frame of reference for every issue that we tackled at Interior, from water, public lands management, wildfires, the Endangered Species Act, just to name a few.”

Kempthorne said he’s purposely made no plans for what he’ll do after he leaves office Jan. 20, to avoid any ethics conflicts or need to recuse himself from overseeing any particular area. “The reality is this will be the first time in 23 years that I have not been actively involved in a campaign or in public office,” he said. “Patricia and I are just going to take a little time off at the conclusion and rejuvenate, look at the options that are out there. … So right now I can’t stand here and tell you what the game plan is.”

He said he’s proud of how he handled an ethics scandal at the Department of Interior, saying he “endeavored to create an atmosphere and a culture of ethics within the department, which is critically important.” The scandal - which involved federal employees trading favors, sex and drugs with oil interests they were supposed to be regulating - “was outrageous - it shouldn’t happen in any organization,” Kempthorne said.

He defended his move to allow concealed weapons in national parks, saying a majority of the U.S. Senate requested it; and defended his controversial handling of the listing of the polar bear as a threatened species.

“Our conclusion was that sea ice, the habitat of the polar bear, has been significantly melting,” he said. “On that basis alone, the Endangered Species Act required the listing. There is no flexibility with the Endangered Species Act.”

But Kempthorne said, “Some had hoped that the listing would open the way to regulate U.S. climate policy. … I was clear that the Endangered Species Act is not the right tool to regulate U.S. climate policy.”

Decisions on such issues as regulating emissions of greenhouses gases, he said, should be made by Congress and the president.

Kempthorne, who worked long, though unsuccessfully, on compromise ESA reforms as a senator, said, “I’ve been around the Endangered Species Act long enough to know that it is a third rail, it is an untouchable icon. A law enacted in 1973 cannot hold individual activities in the entire country accountable for what we know today about the global responsibility for climate change. But this view does not mean we simply have done nothing about climate change.”

He said he appointed a 100-person task force that developed recommendations and still is seeking input on how to manage the agency’s vast resources “as changes affect the land, the water, the plants, the animals and the rest of the human environment.”

The Idaho politician noted that parks and the outdoors long have been a central interest for him, from the development of Hulls Gulch when he was mayor of Boise, to his “Experience Idaho” state park renovation and expansion program as governor, to a push as interior secretary to restore and upgrade national parks.

“Why do I think this is important? Because when you watch children play, you know how important it is for them to experience the outdoors,” he said. “Many young people have become separated from the power of the great outdoors to renew and revive the human spirit. Vast numbers of children spend much of their lives in windowless rooms playing electronic games, games in which the hunted are often human. As a leader, I’ve been determined to renew the connection between the people and the outdoors, of getting people out of cyberspace and into open space, of getting them to put down their Blackberries and go pick huckleberries.”

As the audience chucked, he continued, “To stop channel surfing and go windsurfing. In Idaho, we helped refocus on our parks. As a cabinet secretary, I oversee similar parks, 391 of them. Just as in Idaho they are the perfect place to reconnect with the outdoors.”

He touted a public-private joint effort to raise millions for park improvements by 2016, the 100th anniversary of the national park system.

Questioned about “last-minute” regulations, Kempthorne maintained that changes he’s proposed on ESA consultation were in the works for seven months, ever since he announced the polar bear listing. “We had an extended comment period,” he said. “You’re to play the entire game. … Until Jan. 20, I am the secretary of the interior and I work for you, and I’m not just to sit on the sidelines and become a caretaker.”

Kempthorne said from major water rights agreements to tribal issues to bringing firefighting agencies together to fight catastrophic fires, he found that a collaborative approach worked best, just as he found in his earlier roles. “I’ve taken the lessons that I’ve learned from Idaho to Washington.”

He noted, “A lot of change is about to take place, and a new team is coming into office. With that new team, though, I think there will still be very much bipartisanship, and that’s what you need.”

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