Interior nominee opposes Bush plan to sell public land
By NOELLE STRAUB
Billings Gazette Washington Bureau
May 5, 2006
WASHINGTON -- Interior secretary nominee Dirk Kempthorne at his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday came out against two Bush administration proposals to sell off thousands of acres of public land to pay down the deficit and to fund a rural schools program.
"I do not favor that," Kempthorne told Western senators who asked about a proposal in President Bush's 2007 budget that would sell Bureau of Land Management property worth $250 million over five years and use the proceeds to reduce the debt.
"If it is specific and strictly for deficit reduction, I do not agree with that," he said. "That would be my position. That would be what I would advocate, if confirmed, in those meetings discussing how we resolve this budget deficit that is facing the country."
Asked after the hearing whether the Bush administration had given up on its proposal to sell lands to reduce the deficit, Kempthorne said he could not say that.
"What I expressed is my views," he said. "I expressed the position I will take in those discussions about the budget. I do not favor the concept of selling public lands for deficit reduction."
Kempthorne also said he would work to find a way other than selling off national forestland to fund payments over five years to counties under the Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act.
The Bush administration had proposed selling up to $800 million of forest, including 13,948 acres in Montana and 17,619 acres in Wyoming, to fund the act.
After the hearing, Kempthorne told reporters he would work with the act's original sponsors, Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to find another source of funds.
"What I would like to do there is work with Sen. Craig and Sen. Wyden and see where we can we find offsets to that, because it's a very important program," he said.
Craig said the administration has "read the tea leaves" on the issue and that the proposal "is not going to happen."
Kempthorne said he would not rule out selling federal lands in the future, because there are "situations where the sale of public land is appropriate."
During the 3½-hour hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the Idaho governor and former senator also said he would look for ways to revamp the Endangered Species Act, move more quickly to process drilling permits, and address national park issues.
The Senate committee will vote on Kempthorne's nomination on Wednesday, and then the full Senate is expected to confirm him.
Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., noted the importance of energy production on public lands in the West and asked whether the application process could move more quickly.
Kempthorne responded that he could not speak to the particulars of how Interior handles applications. But as governor, he said, he created the state's Department of Environmental Quality, which moved outstanding permits toward completion.
"I would be happy to look at that with that attitude, that we should move as expeditiously as is appropriate, and that's both in the approval and also for the denial, not judging what the outcome would be," he said.
Kempthorne favors expansion of domestic oil and gas drilling on public lands, saying the U.S. should produce its own energy supply to the extent it can to reduce dependence on imports.
But he said drilling for oil and gas can be done in an environmentally sensitive way.
"Economic vitality and a positive environment, they're not mutually exclusive," he said.
He said he would address low royalty payments to the government despite high energy prices. "I believe that any leases that go forward need to have a price threshold so that if in fact those prices go up, then there should not be the royalty relief," Kempthorne said.
Species act, parks, ethics
Thomas asked whether administration of the Endangered Species Act could be streamlined. While a senator, Kempthorne was part of a bipartisan group that passed reform of the act through the committee, but it did not pass the full Senate.
"If confirmed, I would welcome the opportunity to look at both the regulations side but also what perhaps could be done legislatively," Kempthorne said.
On national park issues, Kempthorne said he would be willing to delve into the proposed rewrite of park management policy that has sparked great controversy. "If confirmed, yes, I will look forward to reviewing those proposed changes in management policies," he said.
Asked why the policies had been rewritten earlier than expected, Kempthorne said the procedures predated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and so must take into account homeland security. He said they also did not address information technology or employee management.
"Any organization from time to time needs to be introspective and see where to make improvements," he said.
Wyden asked Kempthorne to address the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and how it affected the Interior Department. Steven Griles, who served as the deputy secretary from 2001 to 2005, had many contacts with Abramoff's staff about the lobbyist's tribal clients.
"Jack Abramoff used the Interior Department to perpetrate one of the biggest scandals in recent history," Wyden said, adding that Griles "had the run of Interior."
Wyden said the department's inspector general has described Griles' service at Interior as an "ethical quagmire" and that the agency's ethics program is a "wholesale failure."
"It's going to be important for you to go in there and drain the swamp," Wyden said.
Kempthorne responded that one of first briefings he received was with the ethics office, and he plans to give the department's inspector general a key role in department management.
"If confirmed, the first day I'm secretary of interior I will also be sitting down with the office of ethics and will also discuss the topic of ethics with the employees of the Department of Interior," he said.
Kempthorne said he may have to recuse himself for one year from being personally involved with issues he dealt with as Idaho governor, possibly including wolf and grizzly bear issues.