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Idaho governor nominated for Interior Secretary

A prominent tribal leader urged caution on Thursday after President Bush nominated Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) to head the Interior Department.

Tex Hall, the chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota and former president of the National Congress of American Indians, said he places "high hopes" in the new Interior secretary nominee. But he warned that tribes won't be rushing to support Kempthorne in light of their rocky experiences with the Bush administration since 2001.

"Five years ago many leaders from Indian Country voiced their support for the nomination of Gale Norton to be the Secretary of the Interior," Hall said yesterday.� "This time around, I think you are going to see us all be a lot more cautious."

Hall served as a co-chair of the federal-tribal task force that tribes initiated back in November 2001 after outgoing Interior Secretary Gale Norton planned to strip the Bureau of Indian Affairs of its fiduciary responsibilities. Although that idea was eventually scrapped, tribal leaders have watched as the BIA's budget has been slowly drained in order to pay for the mounting costs of trust reform.

To change course, Hall said Kempthorne must settle the Cobell trust fund lawsuit that is driving policy and budget decisions at the Interior Department. He said Kempthorne needs to sit down with tribal leaders, visit reservations and develop "a plan for real progress and real consultation with Indian Country."

Kempthorne, a former U.S. senator, brings to the table some experience in dealing with complex litigation like Cobell. Last year, he signed the Nez Perce Tribe's $193 million water rights settlement, a deal that ended one of the largest and longest-running water disputes in the West.

"We are gathered in a particularly symbolic place -- a courtroom," he said at a March 2005 ceremony. "Yet, we are not gathered here as parties to litigation, as we would have been had we not sorted out these issues. Rather, we have come together to witness one of the final steps in a process that allows us to avoid protracted legal battles."

Kempthorne also has experience in working directly with tribes. As governor, he personally negotiated Class III gaming compacts with the Nez Perce Tribe, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and the Kootenai Tribe.

"Idaho values the special relationship we have with all of our tribes -- one that is based on mutual respect and on open lines of communication," he said back in March 2001. He signed a compact with a fourth tribe in Idaho, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, in 1999 but the tribe went to court to secure its gaming rights after the Legislature refused to ratify the agreement.

In July 2002, Kempthorne signed agreements with six tribes -- four in Idaho, one in Oregon and another in Washington -- to affirm their sovereignty and recognize their right to participate in decisions affecting water, fish, wildlife and other natural resources. Tribal leaders praised his commitment to the government-to-government relationship.

At the same time, Kempthorne been unable to stop fellow Republicans from attacking tribes and he has shown restraint when it comes to certain tribal issues. Despite favorable court decisions for tribes and significant public support for gaming -- 58 percent of state voters supported Indian gaming in a 2002 referendum -- GOP lawmakers have continued to mount what has been called an anti-Indian agenda.

The compacts Kempthorne signed were rejected by Republicans, prompting tribes to seek voter approval for their casinos. More recently, Kempthorne rejected a proposal by the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes to consider off-reservation gaming.

"They originally came and said, would you guys allow us to put a casino in these areas and we said 'No,'" Kempthorne's press secretary told the Associated Press last month.

During the height of sovereignty battles in 2002, Kempthorne attempted to distance himself from a Republican-sponsored bill aimed at imposing a retroactive gasoline tax on tribes. But he still sought its passage, prompting some tribes to question whether he was going back on his word to negotiate rather than litigate.

Federal and state judges later ruled that the tax was illegal and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

But the Supreme Court did hear another Idaho case while Kempthorne was governor. Over the state's objections, the justices ruled 5-4 in June 2001 that the Coeur d'Alene Tribe owns the southern third of Lake Coeur d'Alene. The dispute started before Kempthorne's term and the litigation was handled by former attorney general Al Lance, a Republican.

Kempthorne opposed the Environmental Protection Administration's designation of the Coeur d'Alene Basin as a Superfund site, something the tribe supports in hopes of forcing the cleanup of more than a century of mine waste. But he was able to broker a cleanup agreement between the tribe and a mining company, although the deal later fell through.

With President Bush at his side at the White House yesterday, Kempthorne spoke of his "ability to bring people to the table and to work together to build consensus." "I pledge to you and to the American people that I will continue in that role of reaching out and finding solutions," he said.

Norton, a former Colorado attorney general, is stepping down at the end of the month after five years on the job. Deputy secretary Lynn Scarlett will be handling the Interior secretary job pending Kempthorne's confirmation by the Senate.

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

Relevant Links:
Coeur d'Alene Tribe -
Nez Perce Tribe -
Shoshone-Bannock Tribes -
Gov. Dirk Kempthorne -