Unwise Use: Gale Norton’s New Environmentalism

IN HIS STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS, President Bush called for investing in hydrogen-powered cars. After initial reluctance, the Administration has also implemented Clinton-era proposals to reduce arsenic in drinking water and air pollution from diesel trucks and tractors. And it ordered General Electric to clean up PCB contaminants in the Hudson River. Reporting on what this Administration has done for the environment not only makes for a succinct paragraph but avoids the tedious listing process now required when invoking the ways in which the White House is rolling back a generation of environmental laws, regulations, and treaty commitments.

So when George Bush refers to environmentalists as “Green Green Lima Beans,” it’s a safe bet he’s not engaged in any deep rethinking of policy. Still, as a politician he knows he has to at least appear committed to environmental protection, which is why his political brain, Karl Rove, recently claimed Bush is following in Teddy Roosevelt’s environmentalist tradition. That would be the same Roosevelt who condemned “the landgrabbers and great special interests”–the coal, timber, and oil cartels. “The rights of the public to the nation’s natural resources outweigh private rights,” said T.R.

While the media has portrayed EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman as Bush’s token environmentalist, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton has been his real point-woman in promoting “common-sense solutions to environmental policy”–the Republican rhetoric that functions as a pretext for pillage.

When George Bush stood in front of a giant sequoia in California on Earth Day two years ago and spoke of “a new environmentalism for the twenty-first century” that would “protect the claims of nature while also protecting the legal rights of property owners,” Norton was by his side nodding approvingly. A veteran of the small but influential “Wise Use” movement, Norton helped Bush through his environmental tutorial as a Presidential candidate, providing the intellectual arguments that deregulation, devolution, and free markets are the best ways to achieve environmental goals.

Two decades after Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior James Watt used these same arguments to push for the privatization and industrialization of federal lands (among his quotes, “We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber”), Watt’s agenda has again become government policy. “Twenty years later it sounds like they’ve just dusted off the old work,” confirms Watt from retirement.

The 1988 Wise Use agenda was written by Watt biographer Ron Arnold, who is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. It called for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling, gutting the Endangered Species Act, opening wilderness lands to energy development, logging, and motorized recreation, and giving management of national parks over to private firms like Disney.

As early as October of 2001, Norton was arguing that opening ANWR to drilling would provide the equivalent of eighty years of Iraqi oil imports (pre-invasion) to the United States. She’s also pursuing energy development, logging for “forest health” and motorized recreation on public lands, mountain-top removal for coal mining in Appalachia, and captive breeding of endangered species in lieu of habitat protection. She’s reversed a plan that would have banned snowmobiles from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, she is limiting the amount of land set aside for wilderness protection, and she is moving forward with a plan to begin “outsourcing” National Park Service jobs to private firms.

“I wish we could take credit for that but we can’t,” admits Ron Arnold. “Sometimes you just put something out there long enough and it gets picked up, despite what you do.”

There was a brief moment, in the earliest days of the Bush Administration, when it appeared the White House might balance its thirst for oil with a nod toward wilderness protection by naming John Turner as Secretary of the Interior. Former head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under Bush Senior, Turner is also a Wyoming fly-fishing buddy of Dick Cheney’s. He comes from the clipped moderate wing of the Republican Party that sees conserving nature as part of the conservative tradition.

But before Turner’s name could be put forward, the White House was flooded with angry faxes and e-mails organized by the American Land Rights Association’s Chuck Cushman, a Wise Use firebrand who maintains an e-mail action list of thousands of property rights, mining industry, and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association members. He warned his listserv, “Turner’s longstanding relationships with the Rockefeller Family Foundation and their financing of the environmental left” would lead to a green takeover of the Department of the Interior by “Land-Grabber Turner.”

Backstopped by his Washington lobbyist Mike Hardiman at the American Conservative Union, Cushman and the Wise Use fringe were able to do what they do best: sabotage a potentially eco-friendly initiative, in this case by scaring the Bush White House into thinking it might lose some of its core constituents on the hard right.

“They caved. They blinked. Cheney’s probably angry at us but who cares,” says Arnold. “Norton is a friend.”

And an old one at that. Norton got her start at Watts Mountain States Legal Foundation in Denver, which billed itself as the “litigation arm of Wise Use.” While there, she argued that the government should pay financial compensation whenever environmental laws limited a developer’s real or potential profits.

This argument is based on the Fifth Amendment, which states, “No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of the law: nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” Today, when the government condemns land to build a highway (or a Texas baseball stadium) the Fifth Amendment guarantees that the landowner be paid market value for his or her lost property.

Yet, in 1887, when a Kansas beer brewer argued a prohibition law in his state was also a takings under the Fifth Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled against him, stating that, “a government can prevent a property owner from using his property to injure others without having to compensate the owner for the value of the forbidden use.”

But Norton has argued for a major shift in the takings jurisprudence. “We might even go so far as to recognize a homesteading right to pollute or to make noise in an area. This approach would eliminate some of the theoretical problems with defining a nuisance,” she wrote in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy back in 1990. She later recanted her “right to pollute” phrase during her Senate confirmation hearing.

In 1998 Norton became co-chair of the Coalition of Republican Environmental Advocates. Dedicated to “free market environmentalism,” the coalition included auto, coal mining, and developer lobbyists. Traditional Republican environmentalists like the late Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island refused to join.

In 1999 Norton, now working as a lawyer representing the lead industry, became part of the team advising candidate Bush on developing a conservative “environmentalism for the twenty-first century.” Among those working with her was David Koch of Koch Industries, which in 2000 paid a $ 35 million fine for oil pollution in six states, as well as Lynn Scarlett from the libertarian Reason Foundation of Los Angeles. Scarlett was also a senior fellow at Montana’s Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE), which lived up to its acronym by holding a series of all-expenses-paid property-rights “seminars” for federal judges at a Montana dude ranch.

Norton also spent time as a fellow at the Political Economy Research Center (PERC), Montana’s other property-rights think tank. David Koch is a major funder of both FREE and PERC. With his family’s $ 23 billion fossil fuel fortune, Koch also bankrolls a hornet’s nest of D.C.-based free market think tanks, including the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Citizens for a Sound Economy, which all advocate for the “new environmentalism” of deregulation.

“The last three decades is what I call the old environmentalism,” Scarlett says. Scarlett is now Norton’s assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget, and since Norton likes to keep a low profile, Scarlett has become Norton’s emissary to the public.

“The old environmentalism tended to rely on the four ‘P’s: prescription, telling you how you’re supposed to do things; process, a focus on the permit you need to ‘pass go’ rather than the result; punishment, as a way to motivate action, and a piecemeal approach to air, land, and water,” Scarlett explains. “We’re not getting rid of regulation, but shifting the emphasis, extending a hand to work with, not against, landowners. We think real sustainability has to be about what we call Cooperative Conservation, about engaging people.”

The Department of the Interior is now packed with people previously engaged in the employ of industry. The departments Deputy Secretary Steve Griles is a former mining and oil lobbyist. The Senate, before confirming him, made him sign an agreement that he wouldn’t meet with his former clients. Nevertheless, Griles has gone on to meet with his former clients to discuss new rules that allow the dumping of coal mining waste in Appalachian rivers and a massive coal-bed methane drilling project in Wyoming, according to The Washington Post. On April 7, Senator Joe Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, asked the Interior Department’s inspector general to investigate Griles following a report by the Associated Press that Griles also attended meetings on offshore leases in which his former clients had significant interests.

“These reports raise numerous, troubling questions about whether the deputy secretary has successfully avoided conflicts of interest, or the appearance of conflicts,” said Lieberman.

Eric Ruff, director of communications at the Department of the Interior, disputes the facts of The Washington Post account and says Griles “has followed the highest ethical standards of the department.”

Norton’s special assistant on Alaska is a former oil lobbyist, her assistant secretary for water and science is a former mining lawyer who has called for the abolition of the Endangered Species Act, and her solicitor is from the Cattlemen’s Beef Association, where he lobbied for cheap grazing fees on Interior lands.

With those kinds of built-in conflicts of interest, even Norton’s collaborative rhetoric and her attempts at outreach (including a letter to actor/environmentalist Robert Redford in which she pitched their shared love of zoo-bred condors) haven’t been enough to prevent a series of in-house scandals.

Ironically her biggest controversy is an inherited one, the century-old accounting mess at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. American Indians claim the federal government has squandered billions in oil, gas, and timber royalties from their lands and are suing to reclaim the money.

A more recent scandal that has also angered California Indian tribes involves the death of more than 35,000 salmon on the lower Klamath River, attributed to low water flows after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation diverted water north to Oregon farmers.

In the spring of 2001, alfalfa, hay, and potato farmers marched through the streets of Klamath Falls, Oregon, and illegally opened dam gates to protest a federal decision cutting their irrigation water to guarantee protection for endangered suckerfish and coho salmon runs. Like the snail darter and spotted owl before it, the suckerfish quickly became the poster-animal for anti-Endangered Species Act pundits from talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh to the editorial writers at The Wall Street Journal. What few of these conservative critics were willing to acknowledge was that the water crisis was precipitated by the worst drought to hit the Northwest in over a century, a drought that, like the region’s forty-six shrinking glaciers, is likely linked to fossil-fuel-enhanced climate change. “1994 was the last substantial rain we had,” Ryan Kliewer, a young fourth-generation farmer who marched in the protests, told me.

Under pressure from the White House, Norton’s Bureau of Reclamation slashed the river flow, returning much of the water to the irrigators, despite a report from a team of federal scientists warning this would place the coho salmon in serious jeopardy (along with the commercial fishermen and Indian tribes who depend on them). Last October, Representative Mike Thompson and a group of California protesters dumped 500 pounds of dead, rotting Klamath salmon on the front steps of the Department of the Interior, accusing Norton of a massive cover-up.

This wasn’t the first time Norton’s been accused of ignoring or suppressing government scientists.

In the fall of 2001, she had to explain why, in a letter to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, she’d altered scientific data to make it appear that oil operations in ANWR would not harm hundreds of thousands of migratory caribou, when her own Fish and Wildlife Service had provided her with data suggesting they would.

“We did make a mistake. We will take steps to clarify and correct that,” she told reporters in explaining one of the numerous discrepancies.

Norton also concluded that drilling the Arctic wouldn’t violate an international treaty that protects polar bears. The Fish and Wildlife Service, which has twice issued reports stating that drilling poses a threat to the bears, was directed “to correct these inconsistencies” (in line with Norton’s position).

Bush also signed off on an Army Corps of Engineers proposal that makes it easier for developers and mining companies to dredge and fill America’s wetlands through a “general permitting” process that is rarely if ever challenged. Again, Norton failed to forward comments from her Fish and Wildlife Service to the Army Corps, even though the service had written that the proposed policy change would result in “tremendous destruction of aquatic and terrestrial habitat.”

Norton’s top aides are now actively monitoring career staffers to make sure that scientific assessments don’t conflict with their pro-business political goals, according to whistleblowers within the department who’ve been in touch with reporters and environmental groups. As a result, morale among Interior field scientists is said to be falling faster than a wing-shot condor.

The latest suppressed study (which surfaced in The New York Times on January 31) came from the National Park Service. Today, the largest constituency organized to open up parks and wilderness areas to roads and development is no longer Wise Use loggers and resource industry employees but suburban owners of motorized dirt bikes, ATVs, snowmobiles, and personal watercraft. While millions of Americans are having a love affair with fast, loud off-road vehicles, their owners are creating major user conflicts with tens of millions of other outdoor recreationists who enter wilderness areas believing they’ve left the noise and pollution of the freeway behind.

Air pollution from winter snowmobilers and harassment of buffalo and other wildlife got so bad in Yellowstone National Park that the Park Service decided to phase out the activity. But Norton’s Department of Interior–in response to a suit from the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association–announced it would reassess the rule-making process, this despite 360,000 e-mails and letters, 80 percent of which Supported banning the machines.

“I think the national environment groups have turned on recreation with a vengeance now that they’ve driven the commodity users off the [public] lands,” argues Bill Horn, Washington counsel for the Snowmobile Manufacturers. “Our conversations with the Secretary [of Interior Norton] show her greater appreciation of public recreation on public lands. We need these places for everyone’s enjoyment–not just to have these scientists go in there and create biospheres under glass.”

In November, the Bush Administration proposed a cap of 1,100 snowmobiles a day, up from the present average of 815, arguing that a new generation of machines will be quieter and less polluting. At the same time, according to the Times, the Park Service concluded an internal report (not made public) that found banning the machines was the best way to protect the park’s air quality and wildlife and the health of visitors and employees. Still, thousands of snowmobiles continued to make their runs through Yellowstone and Grand Teton this winter and will continue to do so, at least for the remainder of the Bush Administration.

The next big push at the Interior Department is likely to be the privatization of thousands of National Park Service jobs, including the entire corps of park scientists. The government-wide “competitive sourcing” initiative, being promoted by Bush and his Office of Management and Budget, targets as many as 850,000 jobs in the largely unionized federal workforce to be replaced by private Contractors, including up to 11,524 out of 16,470 National Park Service jobs.

Fran Mainella, director of the Park Service, sent an e-mail to her employees at the end of January assuring them that while 70 percent of their jobs were being studied to see if they were “inherently governmental” functions, that “70 percent has never been used as a measuring stick for privatizing National Park Service jobs.” Under present plans, 15 percent of Park Service jobs will be outsourced by 2004, which will, according to Scarlett, “help tap professional tools with better delivery of services to the public, and new skills and technologies and discipline.”

“The plan is designed to meet ideologically set goals and will rip apart the fabric of the agency,” counters Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington-based activist organization that’s represented a number of Park Service workers. Ruch claims that replacing park scientists will lead to “private consulting firms telling the Park Service what it wants to hear in order to get their contracts renewed.”

With the Department of the Interior also promoting recreational user fees, corporate sponsorship of park activities, and partnerships for bio-prospecting (companies looking to develop new drugs from microbes, plants, and animals) in the parks, one can start to imagine Smokey the Bear recast as ComCast Bear, Arches National Park as Golden Arches National Park, or hip ads promoting Yellowstone washed jeans. Certainly the Wise Use vision of park management given over to private firms, “with expertise in people-moving such as Walt Disney,” seems consistent with Norton’s policies.

As does the end of wilderness itself. On the evening of Friday, April 11, after Congress had recessed for spring break, the Department of the Interior quietly released a statement announcing that, after almost forty years of scenic and biologically important habitat protections under the Wilderness Act, it would no longer seek any additional wilderness designations on public lands. This potentially opens up some 250 million acres of federal rangelands and Western mountains to mining, drilling, road construction, and other forms of development.

Still, by keeping a low profile and being a team player, by talking about her love of hiking, condors, and conservation while promoting the White House energy plan to open millions of acres of public lands to mining and drilling, by choosing her audiences and never second-guessing her boss, Norton has remained a relatively noncontroversial figure in the Administration. Despite her early portrayals by environmentalists as “James Watt in a skirt,” she has shown far more political acumen than the man who once bragged of a commission on which he had a black, a woman, “two Jews, and a cripple.”

Rather then openly attack environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act (which she has argued is unconstitutional), Norton has used the regulatory process to ease up on industry and the administrative process to crack down on agency professionals who disagree with her.

Of course, with the Republicans now in charge of both the White House and Capitol Hill, the impulse to overreach and go for a more fundamental realignment of broadly popular environmental laws may prove highly tempting.

For environmentalists to move beyond a purely defensive posture, however, it will take more than waiting on a Republican gaffe or alarmed direct mail solicitations showing nursing caribou on the tundra.

The environmental movement has to address the links among oil, energy, climate change, landscape, and security. This will mean dealing with the Middle East wars, as well as Norton’s drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska. It will mean committing to a level of national and global politics that could prove highly partisan, complex, and intense.

David Helvarg is the author of “The War Against the Greens” and “Blue Frontier: Saving America’s Living Seas.” He’s also the founder of the Blue Frontier Campaign, based in Washington, D.C.