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Politics
Tribal issues put Kempthorne in hot seat at Interior


Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) has yet to go before the Senate for his confirmation hearings but he faces some pretty hot debates as the nation's next Interior Secretary.

Off-reservation gaming, land-into-trust, federal recognition, tribal lobbying and the Cobell lawsuit are just a few of the high-profile controversies that will dominate his agenda once he is confirmed. That's in addition to the non-tribal matters he is likely to encounter as head of the Interior Department, a diverse agency in charge of everything from Indian education to bison management to oil drilling.

"As Secretary of the Interior, Dirk will continue my administration's efforts to conserve our land, water, and air resources, reduce the maintenance backlog of our national parks, support historic and cultural sites through our Preserve America Initiative, and develop the energy potential of federal lands and waters in environmentally sensitive ways," President Bush said last week at the White House.

The president left Indian issues off the list but his nomine won't be able to ignore them so easily. Praised as a consensus-builder, Kempthorne will have to put his skills to the test as he attempts to balance Indian interests with those of states, local communities and the energy industry. As history has shown, those interests are often in conflict.

In the coming year, Kempthorne's department will be finalizing controversial regulations for gaming on newly acquired lands, an issue that pitted has tribes against non-Indians and even against other tribes. As governor, he has already faced the issue when the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes approached him about an off-reservation casino. He quickly rejected the idea.

Kempthorne will oversee federal recognition decisions of dozens of tribes, some of whom have been waiting decades for an answer. It's an issue he hasn't really encountered, largely because he comes from a state with several established tribes. But one tribe from Idaho, the Lemhi Shoshone, is seeking recognition.

He'll watch as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of Special Trust attempt to overhaul 600 pages of Indian trust regulations, some dating back several decades. Tribes from his state are meeting with federal officials in Portland, Oregon, later this month to express their concern about the way the proposal is being handled. Idaho tribes have been among the most outspoken opponents of the Bush administration's trust reform initiatives.

Kempthorne will also step into an increasingly thorny political atmosphere where nearly every decision at Interior is viewed in light of the Jack Abramoff scandal. Kempthorne served in the U.S. Senate for six years but the lobbying business has changed dramatically since he was in Washington during the 1990s. Tribal political donations, for example, grew to $25 million in the five years after his departure from Congress.

Finally, once he is confirmed, Kempthorne will quickly be named as a defendant in the Cobell trust fund lawsuit. Next month alone, a federal appeals court is hearing three separate issues in the case, which was ensnared the Clinton and Bush administrations alike for 10 years.

Kempthorne's record as a senator -- he didn't sponsor any significant pieces of Indian legislation from 1993 to 1999 -- doesn't give any real indication of his stance on these issues. His record as governor is more telling -- he has negotiated gaming compacts, signed agreements that recognize tribal sovereignty and settled a major tribal water rights dispute.

According to PoliticalMoneyLine, a website that tracks money in politics, Kempthorne has received campaign contributions mostly from the energy and agriculture industries. When he was in the Senate, companies from those two sectors were his top donors, a trend that continued when he returned home to serve as governor, the website reported last week.

Those donors include mining and agricultural companies with interests affected by the Interior Department. Some of them -- particularly mining interests like Asarco and Hecla -- are in direct conflict with tribes in his state and in other states.

Kempthorne also once worked for FMC Corporation, the world's largest producer of phosphorous, a chemical that has polluted parts of the Fort Hall Reservation, home to the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. FMC is decommissioning its phosphorous plant on the reservation and has been told by a federal judge to submit to tribal environmental laws.

White House Announcement:
President Bush Nominates Dirk Kempthorne as Interior Secretary (March 16, 2006)

Relevant Links:
Coeur d'Alene Tribe - http://www.cdatribe.com
Nez Perce Tribe - http://www.nezperce.org
Shoshone-Bannock Tribes - http://www.shoshonebannocktribes.com
Gov. Dirk Kempthorne - http://gov.idaho.gov