Archive for Thursday, July 5, 2001

Interior fears appear justified

July 5, 2001


— Gale Norton made a pretty good case during Senate confirmation hearings on her nomination as Interior secretary that way too many scare stories had been told about her. Give her a chance, she said, and she'd prove herself a reasonable person seeking the middle ground. Half a year later, the scare stories are looking mighty like foretokens.

You had to want to believe Norton when she said she was no distaff version of her mentor, the dreadful James Watt, that junkyard dog of anti-environmentalism under whom she served in the Reagan administration. With this as an apprenticeship, her dignified assurance to the senators "I mean no disrespect to him, but I am my own person" was something anyone would want desperately to count on.

Certainly there had been cause for unsettlement. Norton's record clearly favored industry over environment. Much of the money she raised for her failed Senate campaign in Colorado in 1996 came from energy interests. She had once filed a brief challenging the constitutionality of the Endangered Species Act, which she would so shortly be in charge of administering.

Then there was the speech five years ago in which she appeared to be equating the fight for the Confederacy with the fight for states' rights. But President Bush hastened to assure us, "That's just a ridiculous interpretation of what's in her heart," and who couldn't want to believe this?

At her confirmation hearings, seeking to soothe the worries, Norton came off as calm and reasonable. She valued both the preservation of our lands and the ability of people to use them, she said. She believed you could be both a conservative and a conservationist. Palpably reasonable positions.

Then she got the job. Her actions and her appointments began to stack up. She was for drilling off the coast of Florida against the wishes of the governor, Jeb Bush. She was for "boundary adjustments" to allow drilling in protected federal lands. Various Clinton administrative rules, many long in the making, were suspended. Enforcement of the Endangered Species Act was weakened. An energy industry lobbyist was nominated as her deputy, a grazing-rights advocate as Interior Department solicitor.

And along came the administration's energy policy. Bush persisted in wanting Congress to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He instructed Norton to look at lands that had been withdrawn from oil and gas leasing, and to review restrictions on access. There would be a new look, too, at offshore exploration.

As the national reaction to Bush's energy and environmental policies built, Norton and her boss made visits to national parks. Posing against the grandeur of an ancient sequoia, they asked for more money to spend on these long-neglected lands. Much of the money, it turned out, was for building and maintaining roads, boat docks and bridges.

Norton's most recent appointments are among the most worrisome. She named Cam Toohey, leader of a group that campaigned to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, as her special assistant for Alaska. She named Drue Pearce, a former Alaska state senator who has lobbied for drilling in the Arctic, as her senior aide on Alaskan issues.

Backers of oil development loved it. Oliver Leavitt of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. said: "These appointments are great for Alaska." Environmentalists howled. Sara Chapell, an Alaska spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, said: "Today we've seen a hostile takeover of the Interior Department by the oil industry."

Norton, meanwhile, seems more and more comfortable reverting to her old Wild West, scare-story stripes. In a priceless moment at the National Rifle Assn.'s recent convention, she called NRA members "America's unsung conservation heroes." Whatever you think of NRA members and plenty of them are indeed strong supporters of wilderness protection one thing they are not is unnoticed. The NRA perennially tops Fortune magazine's list of top lobbying groups. Its hefty involvement in politics produces an unbeatable endorsement record (86 percent victorious candidates this last election, the NRA says). It claims 3 million to 4 million members. With one of America's loudest mouths and fattest pocketbooks, the NRA is about as unsung as our national anthem, and to call it so is downright wacky.

Norton continues to try to sound reassuring. "What we're trying to do is to substitute cooperation for conflict," she said recently. "If you have that kind of cooperative arrangement, you can achieve great things."

Really, though, how much credit can you give someone for seeking the middle ground, if she's always trying to drill on it?

Geneva Overholser is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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