Former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has been appointed to a three-year term on the Board of Trustees of the National Parks Conservation Association, a somewhat curious, and possibly controversial, move in light of his oversight of the national parks.
During his short tenure during the final two years of the Bush administration Mr. Kempthorne oversaw a number of controversial management decisions in the parks and was criticized from time to time by NPCA officials.
Yet in quietly announcing his appointment Thursday, NPCA President Tom Kiernan said in a prepared statement that the park advocacy group was "extremely fortunate to have Dirk Kempthorne join our board. During his tenure as Interior Secretary, he made caring for and enhancing the national parks his highest priority. He truly understands the value of our parks, and will provide tremendous guidance to our organization.”
Mr. Kiernan was unavailable Thursday to discuss the appointment, and Mr. Kempthorne could not immediately be located. But Craig Obey, the group's senior vice president for government affairs, said that while Mr. Kempthorne presided over some decisions the NPCA clearly and strongly opposed, he also worked hard for the national parks in an administration that wasn't an ardent supporter of the parks.
“It’s no secret that we fought with the Bush administration for eight years on a number of policy matters. That’s a document of rather clear public record," Mr. Obey said from his Washington, D.C., office. "I think, when you look at the history there, those first six years under (Interior Secretary Gale) Norton, where the parks were consistently bled of fiscal resources, where we had decision after decision that was problematic. They were trying to privatize positions, the (Park Service) Management Policies rewrite effort began. Those were areas where we fought like hell.
“And when Kempthorne came in, there was a decidedly different attitude on many park issues," said Mr. Obey. "Did we agree on everything? Absolutely not. There were certain things that we disagreed with and we would still disagree with today. But when you look at what he did.... First off on the Management Policies, putting into place what are quite good Management Policies, compared to what would have been an effort to gut them earlier, was I think enormously important. Then, the Centennial Initiative ... it was hundreds of millions of dollars for the parks that accrued from that. And that I think was something, he devoted enormous effort and clout within the administration to get something like that off the ground."
But many aspects of Mr. Kempthorne's record raise questions over how much he valued the parks. While the Republican early on in his tenure pledged to let science guide management decisions in the parks, a number of actions during his tenure seemed to overrun that pledge. For instance:
* During his stint in Interior the National Park Service pushed through a winter-use plan for Yellowstone National Park that a federal judge later tossed out, saying it ran counter to science and the National Park Service's conservation mission.
Mr. Kempthorne also ignored a call by former Park Service directors to ban recreational snowmobiling in the park.
* Mr. Kempthorne opened the door for the rule change that allowed visitors to national parks arm themselves with guns.
NPCA officials were highly critical of this move, calling the rule change a "rush to judgment" and going to court over it.
At one point Mr. Kiernan stated that, "Overturning Reagan-era rules that struck the right balance between the rights of gun owners and the safety of families and wildlife is a blow to the national parks and the 300 million visitors who enjoy them every year."
A federal judge blocked the rule change -- which Congress later implemented through an amendment to a credit card law -- saying Interior officials were abdicating "their congressionally-mandated obligation to evaluate all reasonably foreseeable environmental impacts..." of the rule change.
At one point the judge, who called the Bush administration's approach "astoundingly flawed," said she struggled to grasp the logic of Secretary Kempthorne in deciding no NEPA review was necessary.
* Under Mr. Kempthorne the Interior Department removed Endangered Species Act protections from the gray wolf in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, a move that later was overturned.
* Mr. Kempthorne expressed his "gratitude" when the United Nations's World Heritage Committee removed Everglades National Park from its World Heritage Site In Danger list. The park earlier this summer was returned to that list due to the many threats to its health.
* It was the Bureau of Land Management under Secretary Kempthorne that rushed through an oil and gas auction in Utah, with some parcels in close proximity to Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Dinosaur National Monument. The Obama administration later removed some of the leases from auction.
* Mr. Kempthorne finalized regulations to exempt thousands of federal activities, including those that generate greenhouse gases, from review under the Endangered Species Act. At issue were so-called "Section 7" consultations with endangered species experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Those consultations were required for any federal agency where their actions might affect endangered species, even if no negative impacts are likely.
* Mr. Kempthorne remained silent when a number of conservation groups, including the NPCA, urged him to reinstate a ban on personal watercraft in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Gulf Islands and Cape Lookout national seashores. A federal judge earlier this summer ruled the Park Service under the Bush administration acted improperly in lifting the ban.
Now, Mr. Kempthorne did preside over some notable accomplishments during his two-plus years as Interior secretary.
* He helped the Bush administration craft its Centennial Initiative, which funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into the parks.
* He appointed a climate change task force in Interior.
* He ordered an Inspector General's report into safety in the national parks, one that showed some parks could be hazardous to visitors.
Mr. Obey agreed that there were many areas where his group disagreed with Mr. Kempthorne. However, he said that on the issue of guns in the parks, "there were a whole lot of people who threw the national parks under the bus, both in the Bush administration and the Obama administration, and both sides of the aisle in Congress, so there’s plenty of credit to go around on that."
At the end of the day, the NPCA official said, as Interior secretary Mr. Kempthorne "did what he could do, in the constraints there, to I think try and help the parks."
"You know, there are going to be people who disagree with, or question our decision on that (appointment). That’s their right and I respect that," said Mr. Obey. "I think there was a feeling that our board had that he was someone who had a perspective and experience that would be helpful.”
In a less controversial announcement, NPCA also said that Carole Hunter, a former Garden Club of America committee vice-chair and long-time conservationist, was also appointed to its board.