No redesign at Interior

SAY THIS MUCH FOR President Bush’s pick for Interior secretary, Dirk Kempthorne: He’s a better choice than Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy) would have been. Back in the 1990s, when Kempthorne was a Republican senator representing Idaho, he sought only to weaken the Endangered Species Act, not eviscerate it, as Pombo has advocated.

Kempthorne, now Idaho’s governor, is unlikely to differ markedly from outgoing Secretary Gale Norton. And that’s too bad. After five years under Norton, who seldom saw a piece of protected wilderness that she thought wouldn’t look better with an oil rig on it, the nation could use some Interior redecoration.

As a senator, Kempthorne repeatedly earned low rankings on environmental scorecards, especially after he supported placing an Air Force bombing range in the breathtaking Owyhee Canyonlands. (It was later scaled down markedly by the courts.) As governor, he went to court to keep grizzly bears out of his state, trimmed environmental services budgets and enthusiastically backed the Bush administration’s loosening of road-less protections in national forests.

Norton leaves her post without seeing one of her fondest wishes -- oil drilling in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- become reality. Thanks in part to her obstinacy, the destructive proposal has popped up for five straight years in ever sneakier forms, most recently this week in the budget bill, where it passed the Senate on Thursday but could face tougher opposition down the road.


It would be refreshing to see this noxious idea, which has been killed each time in years past, die and stay dead. The new nomination offers little hope of that. Not as long as oil companies have an eye on the refuge.

Though Kempthorne is no greater pal of the environment than Norton, he is seen as a consensus-builder who tried but failed to get environmentalists and industry types in sync on how best to treat endangered species. He’s likely to try to cobble together similar agreements if he gets the new job, which seems probable.

That is fine as far as it goes. But it’s not enough to have an Interior secretary who is open to protecting the environment only as long as corporate interests like the idea too.