Kempthorne Returns to Idaho to 'Listen,'
by John Miller, Associated Press
BOISE, Idaho -- Reforming the federal law meant to keep wolves, grizzly bears and wild salmon from disappearing was the focus of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's return to the state he governed for seven-and-a-half years.
Monday's event at Boise State University was the 24th and final Interior Department listening session on "collaborative conservation," in states including Alaska, Florida, Washington and Maine.
In Idaho, Kempthorne got an earful from pro-development, ranching and hunting groups who called the 1973 Endangered Species Act outdated and in need of overhaul to aid economic development they claimed was now hamstrung by bureaucracy and the courts. Their poster child: the gray wolf, which remains federally protected although there are about 700 in Idaho.
Environmentalists reminded Kempthorne that while changes may be needed, the law has helped prevent 1,000 species from vanishing.
With less than one month to go before Nov. 7 national elections that could result in Democrats winning leadership in Congress, Kempthorne said he's optimistic the atmosphere of cooperation he's trying to foster by bringing warring parties together at events like Monday's in Boise will survive any potential shake-up.
"We have Republicans and Democrats that are involved in this cooperative conservation atmosphere," Kempthorne said. "I don't think that's going to change."
In Alaska, several dozen Fairbanks-area residents told Kempthorne to protect the sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling, while environmental groups at a Sept. 25 event in Florida dominated by demanding that the Bush administration enforce environmental laws. Many who attended an August session in Spokane, Wash., told Kempthorne their private property rights were under assault.
Many of the 40 people who spoke up in Boise argued that federal environmental laws have shortchanged would-be golf course developers, forced homebuilders to duplicate paperwork and emptied forests of hunter-coveted elk, due to wolf attacks.
"I get phone calls daily from sportsmen who say our woods are devoid of animals," said Marv Hagedorn, of the group Sportsman for Fish & Wildlife.
Joe Nelson, a lawyer for the National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition, told Kempthorne to develop regulations that increase local government involvement and encourage voluntary participation in conservation programs.
"(It's a) question of how to balance both our natural resource legacy with the ongoing need to have a diverse and robust economy," Nelson said.
Meanwhile, National Audubon Society members told the former governor that reforming the law shouldn't mean gutting it. After all, bald eagles, trumpeter swans and wolves likely wouldn't have survived without it, said Bruce Ackerman, Boise chapter president.
"Cooperative conservation is not a substitute for good effective laws," Ackerman said.
The Idaho Conservation League pointed to proposals it backs - two planned federal wildernesses, in Idaho's Boulder and White Cloud mountains and the Owyhee canyonlands - as evidence that collaboration among disparate groups including ranchers, county commissioners and environmentalists can succeed.
Though finding common ground "is undeniably the future," conflict can be helpful, too, said director Rick Johnson.
"Many of the issues we work on are very challenging and civil conflict does have a role," he said. "It focuses the discussion."
Idaho lawmakers are at the center of the debate over Endangered Species Act reform.
U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, who attended Monday's session, has sponsored a proposal competing with a rival plan from Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif. Crapo's bill would give tax breaks to landowners in exchange for helping plants and animals, but offers more for environmentalists than Pombo's House-passed bill. Pombo wants the government to compensate property owners - if steps needed to protect species thwart development plans.
Crapo said his bill seeks to find the middle ground Kempthorne is pushing with his listening sessions.
"(Pombo's payment provision) was one of the provisions that did not have the kind of support to make it through the entire Congress," said Crapo. "We've put into our legislation those kinds of things on which there is great agreement."
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