New Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne Speaks With Recreation Leaders

Some 20 recreation and tourism community leaders, including ARC President Derrick Crandall, joined new Secretary of the Interior, Dirk Kempthorne, for a conference call on Thursday, June 1. Mr. Kempthorne was sworn in as the 49th Secretary of the Interior on May 26 and is spending substantial time reaching out to Interior’s constituents. He has spoken with environmentalists and sportsmen and met with energy and conservation leaders – together. The conference call was a prelude to a face-to-face meeting with recreation interests in the near future.

Derrick Crandall’s report on the meeting follows.

“After introducing Interior staff with him on the call (Vicki Dixon and others from External Liaison, Dean Reeder of NPS and a few more), Secretary Kempthorne stressed the importance of the recreation industry and expressed ‘a great appreciation for what [we] do’ – serving national needs and interests. He noted that several on the call – and especially Carl Wilgus, Idaho state tourism director, – knew of his love of the outdoors and his enthusiasm for being an advocate of outdoors and recreation issues.

“Secretary Kempthorne explained that he was especially glad to be talking with the recreation community on the first day of the Presidentially-proclaimed Great Outdoors Month, and that he had earlier in the day signed documents naming 36 additional National Recreation Trails, totaling 800+ miles, in recognition of National Trails Day on June 3. He also noted that he has bought a DC fishing license so that he can join 300 youth during National Fishing and Boating Week.

“The Secretary announced that Gary Smith of Idaho has joined Interior as Director of External and Intergovernmental Affairs, a position formerly held by Kit Kimball. He mentioned Mr. Smith’s role for him on National Governors Association matters. A Boise city councilman while Dirk Kempthorne was Mayor of Boise, he came to DC with then-Senator Kempthorne and played a pivotal role in rescuing the Symms Fund, helping to transform it into the Recreational Trails Program in TEA-21. Coalition for Recreational Trails’ members – motorized and non-motorized alike -- carried away from this effort a very warm feeling about Gary Smith who went on to play a key role in Governor Kempthorne’s office, acting as liaison with a number of state cabinet posts and national organizations.

“Mr. Kempthorne concluded by saying that he wants to hear from all of those involved in public lands issues and talked about the energy/conservation leaders session, where he implored the leaders to look for common ground and cooperation. It is useful to note topics that did not arise in the Secretary’s remarks: volunteers, concessions and permits, roads, energy and land sales.

“Mr. Kempthorne received questions and comments following his remarks. I began by observing that one group of public programs was growing fast and no one was happy about the growth in spending – spending to care for sick people – often sick because of too little physical activity. I said that there is a great opportunity for the Secretary to work with fellow-Cabinet member and former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services. I noted that Interior got only meager funds from the Highway Trust Fund pre-1991 and now gets much of the $1.5 billion annually from the fund for recreation programs. I suggested that good arguments could be made to invest in preventive health care in ways that help Americans enjoy better and more convenient opportunities for walking and running and biking – monies that could be spent to develop and maintain infrastructure on public lands. Substantial new funding for the role of parks and other public lands in the health arena would be a wonderful legacy, I added.

“The Secretary responded positively. He made a point of stressing his comfort in working with HHS Secretary Leavitt, saying that they had spent time together just the day before he was confirmed. And Mr. Kempthorne had come away appalled by statistics about the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes – traditionally called adult-onset diabetes – now showing up commonly in 7-year olds. He said that because one of his goals was to think holistically about his actions, he thought this was an important area to investigate soon and thoroughly.

“He noted that the U.S. Department of the Interior issues hundreds of millions of dollars in grants annually through several bureaus and programs, and that he felt the grants were not being examined sufficiently to look for synergies and greater accomplishments, nor were they being considered as means to address top priority issues in a unified way.

“Several others offered thoughts and suggestions. Carl Wilgus spoke of alternative funding tools for parks in Idaho as a possible model for the national level and about the concept of a western regional technical assistance center to aid recreation and tourism. The Secretary pledged to look into each. Frank Hugelmeyer cited the drop in Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) spending and the funding crisis in federal and state parks, and asked for the Secretary’s support. Mr. Hugelmeyer stressed the economic contribution of recreation to the nation and spoke of new research the Outdoor Industry Association will release in August at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake, where he invited the Secretary to be part of that release and to meet key recreation leaders. The Secretary took issue with the reference to national park backlogs, saying that he thought real progress had been made there. He did express interest in fulfilling the historic role of LWCF better and in attending the August event.

“David Brown addressed the need to examine closely federal spending on recreation and natural resource management, saying that the agency thrust now is raising revenue with fees and other charges to cover costs – even when those costs were unreasonable. In response, Mr. Kempthorne noted that the U.S. Department of the Interior issues hundreds of millions of dollars in grants annually through several bureaus and programs, and that he feels the grants are not being examined sufficiently to look for synergies and greater accomplishments, nor were they being considered as means to address top priority issues in a unified way.

“Bill Hardman congratulated the Secretary and spoke of the growing coordination between tourism and parks leaders in the southeast. He told the Secretary about a meeting on tourism and public lands in September and invited him to take part – and the Secretary expressed interest.

“ARC members were well represented on the call – from Tom Cove to David Gorin, Pete Nonis to Tod Hull, Christine Jourdain to David Brown and more. ARC hopes to arrange for the Secretary to interact with the recreation community during Great Outdoors Week 2006, June 12 – 17.

“In summary:

  • Secretary Kempthorne is taking a different approach to communications and external liaison than that of Gale Norton;
  • recreation issues are important to him;
  • he seeks consensus and win/win solutions; and
  • he is receptive to new ideas.”