Letters from the West

Lessons Zinke can learn from Interior secretaries’ successes and failures

Former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, left, served as Interior secretary to President George W. Bush. They are pictured in the Rose Garden of the White House in 2008.
Former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, left, served as Interior secretary to President George W. Bush. They are pictured in the Rose Garden of the White House in 2008. Associated Press

Montana Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke awaits the chance to tell the senators who will consider his nomination why President-elect Donald Trump made a good call picking him to lead the Department of the Interior.

I hope he reaches out to former secretaries from both parties for advice. I have been lucky enough to have interviewed all but one of the Interior leaders since former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus held the job in the 1970s.

Zinke can learn from their experiences, good and bad. He says he will govern in the tradition of President Theodore Roosevelt, who advanced both preservation and wise use of our resources.

Idaho’s Andrus led in that very tradition.

When Andrus told President Jimmy Carter to use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to set aside 56 million acres of Alaska as national monuments, the president was incredulous. “Can I do that?” Carter asked.

“You have the authority, sir,” answered Andrus, according to his memoir.

“Let’s do it,” Carter said.

The monuments forced Alaska’s congressional delegation to cut a deal on the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, setting aside 103 million acres as national parks, wildlife refuges, wild and scenic rivers, and wilderness areas.

The Andrus lesson: Have the ear of the president, work with Congress, but also be bold.

James Watt gets a really bad rap as an anti-environmental Interior secretary, but even the feisty Wyoming lawyer for the Sagebrush rebels of another era didn’t have the audacity to put his name on a plan to sell off America’s public lands. In the early days of the Reagan administration, right-wing think tank fellows within the administration prepared a plan to sell off “surplus” lands to help balance the federal budget.

When the plan was revealed prior to Watt’s approval, it created a public uproar. As a young newspaper editor in Wisconsin, I learned about and shared details with our Washington reporter a minor plan to sell portions of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in northern Wisconsin. The land would have gone back to the original owners, who had been big contributors to the Reagan campaign. When we made it public, Watt was asked by reporters on CBS’ “Face the Nation” whether there were any plans to sell public lands. He flatly denied it.

“What about the Apostle Islands?” a reporter asked.

“I am not prepared to discuss the Apostle Islands,” Watt replied.

The deal was killed the next day.

Watt’s problem was he said exactly what he thought, and that got him into trouble. He took the Beach Boys off the Fourth of July Capitol Mall concert bill. That was bad because Nancy Reagan liked the Beach Boys. But ultimately it was a statement that got him canned: “I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple,” in reference to appointments.

But Watt did have success in putting rules in place to open land and offshore areas to drilling and reduce federal regulatory powers that lasted long into the 1990s.

The Watt lesson: Watch your tongue and pay attention to the details.

Like Watt, Manuel Lujan, who was Interior secretary under the first President George Bush, got into trouble for what he said. He once wrongly said the federal government got royalties for hard rock minerals such as gold, and later acknowledged, “I didn’t know what I was talking about.” Today he’d be praised for his candor, considering we live in a time when Trump never admits he’s wrong, even when it is obvious.

While floating the South Fork of the Snake River in Eastern Idaho, Lujan, wearing hip waders, got out of his raft at a campground and immediately stepped into a fresh cow pie.

“What is this doing here?” Lujan asked.

The land manager told him that cattle were allowed to graze in the campground. The next year a fence was built around the campground and cattle were kept out.

The Lujan lesson: Even if you step in it, you can clean up the problem.

Idaho’s Dirk Kempthorne had to clean up after Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s scandal-ridden tenure. Stephen Griles, Norton’s undersecretary, went to prison for lying to Congress. Kempthorne’s first step when he was elevated from Idaho’s governorship was to go to Inspector General Earl Devaney, who was investigating several scandals. Kempthorne told Devaney that he had his support in exposing corruption.

But in the end, the media raked Kempthorne over the coals for a plush $236,000 renovation of the secretary’s private bathroom, which had been started before Kempthorne and had been approved by the General Services Administration.

The Kempthorne lesson: No good deed goes unpunished.

Bruce Babbitt got his wish to see a “really big dam” come down, when he stood on the banks of Maine’s Kennebec River in 1999 and watched the Edwards Dam fall. He stood on the bank with the captains of industry, utility executives, Maine Gov. Angus King and environmentalists as they cheered the dam-busting. On the other side of the river, the sons and daughters of the men and women who had worked in the long-closed textile mills powered by the dam cried.

When reporters asked Babbitt whether removing the dam was a precursor to breaching the four lower Snake River dams in Washington, he said no. He didn’t want Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., to stop funding for the eventual removal of the two Elwha dams in Olympic National Park in northwest Washington.

Babbitt couldn’t get President Bill Clinton’s administration to approve breaching the four lower Snake dams before they left office in 2001, and Babbitt knew it.

The Babbitt lesson: Know what’s doable politically, and don’t overdrive your headlights.

In 2008, Kempthorne’s collaboration with Oregon and Washington governors, an Indian tribe, Pacificorp and environmental groups led to an agreement for the removal of four dams on the Klamath River. That’s a deal that still hasn’t been finalized because of strong cultural objections.

But in 2010, I stood with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and his soon-to-be-successor, Sally Jewell, then CEO of REI, as the demolition of the Elwha dams in western Washington began. Babbitt’s long-term river restoration strategy paid off.

The lesson for Zinke: Decide what he wants history to remember him for.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker