WASHINGTON—Beneath an oil painting of Old Faithful erupting, two jarring documents collided Monday on the desk of Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.
One was a New York Times editorial praising him as a "lifeline" for the national parks; the other was a letter from Democrats in the House of Representatives asking him to explain how a Bush political appointee may have improperly removed a California fish from a list of threatened species.
Just another day in his wood-paneled office?
"That's to be expected," the 56-year-old Kempthorne said in an interview. "A lot of people have visceral feelings about many of the issues we deal with at the Department of the Interior. These are America's treasures."
Kempthorne, Idaho's amiable former governor and U.S. senator, returned to Washington a year ago to put a new face on the Bush administration's checkered image on conservation and environment.
He had a long to-do list: Save the decaying national parks, minimize the impact of oil and gas drilling on public land, resolve a decades-long row over endangered species and clean up a department tarnished by allegations of political interference in everything from Indian gaming to wildlife preservation.
He's received high marks so far for his efforts to revive the nation's parks, and his Healthy Lands Initiative is aimed at offsetting the impact of the Bush administration's oil and gas development in the West.
But his hopes for revising the 34-year-old Endangered Species Act are running into political trouble tied to the scandals of his predecessor, Gale Norton.
A case in point is a congressional investigation into the actions of Julie MacDonald, who resigned this month as the Interior Department's deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.
A holdover from the Norton era, MacDonald left amid allegations that she was involved in removing the Sacramento Splittail fish from the federal threatened and endangered species list to benefit her 80-acre California farm.
Kempthorne has remained silent on the issue, which he calls a "personnel matter."
MacDonald departed after Salon.com, an online political magazine, published a leaked Interior Department draft suggesting a wholesale rewrite of the Endangered Species Act. Environmentalists, who've used the law in a long succession of legal victories, howled.
"Tactically, they've just blundered it over and over and over," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, the executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife and a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under President Clinton.
"That work product predated me," Kempthorne said. "When I arrived I put a stop to it, because it did not reflect the direction I wanted to go."
But where Kempthorne wants to take the Endangered Species Act, the centerpiece of his department's environmental franchise, remains unclear.
A decade ago, as a senator, he came close to fashioning a compromise with the Clinton administration that would have required more scientific study and given landowners more say over plans to protect species habitats.
But he appears to have abandoned any effort to rewrite the law, saying there's little public support for that. The "improvements" he wants to make, which he hasn't specified, are more likely to be pursued through administrative rule changes.
His park policy, on the other hand, has pleasantly surprised preservationists.
Within weeks of moving into the ornate interior secretary's office, Kempthorne said he'd reverse a move to shift the balance between national park preservation and visitor services toward more development. The proposed policy would have allowed more motorized recreation, as well as cell phone towers in parks.
Kempthorne's policy required park managers to consider not only the impact that these and other new uses would have on the air, water, land and wildlife but also "the atmosphere of peace and tranquility and natural soundscapes."
He also convinced Bush to support an ambitious 10-year program to rebuild the parks' visitor centers, offices and housing.
His biggest accomplishment, park advocates said, is persuading the Bush administration to increase the National Park Service's budget. The administration has called for spending $208 million more in 2008 than it did in the 2007 budget, one of the largest increases in the agency's history.
The Office of Management and Budget left his parks initiative out of the draft budget, Kempthorne said. He was able to get it back in.
"He's relentless," said Tom Kiernan, the president of the National Parks and Conservation Association.
Kempthorne came to Interior amid the biggest boom in oil and gas development in the West since the 1980s. Federal land managers, especially in the Bureau of Land Management, were issuing new leases, often over the objections of sportsmen, local officials and governors, a charged issue in traditionally Republican states such as Wyoming, Montana and Colorado.
Eighty-five percent of the "technically recoverable oil" and 88 percent of the "technically recoverable" natural gas already were available for leasing when Kempthorne took over, according to an Interior report.
Kempthorne toured gas fields near Pinedale, Wyo., in August and saw a forest of drilling rigs going up in sage grouse habitat on the edge of big game corridors.
That prompted him to develop the Healthy Lands Initiative. It requires the Bureau of Land Management to look at entire landscapes in its resource-management planning process to ensure that new drilling doesn't destroy the best remaining wildlife habitat. It also will provide $22 million to wildlife projects in the region to offset the impact that drilling already has had.
Once again, Kempthorne said, he's trying to navigate the ideological divide.
"World-class energy resources are sitting below world-class habitat and wildlife corridors," he said. "How do you make sure they are not mutually exclusive?"
(Diaz reports from Washington for The Idaho Statesman and the Anchorage Daily News. Barker reports from Boise for The Idaho Statesman.)