Will Norton offer a Watt redux?

January 18, 2001|By Edward Flattau

WASHINGTON -- The last thing Americans need is a right-wing ideologue at the helm of the Interior Department. Yet many environmentalists fear President-elect George W. Bush has done just that by nominating Gale Norton to head the agency that oversees the nation's development-besieged public lands.

In an ideal world, one should not pre-judge a candidate for office solely on the basis of the individual's past experience because people do evolve. But often, past experience is the only guidance.

In Ms. Norton's case, her record reflects no dramatic change from the early 1980s, when she was a protM-igM-i of the infamous former Interior Secretary James Watt and enthusiastically worked to implement his regressive land-use policies. Mr. Watt was the Ronald Reagan appointee whose consumptive raids on federally owned wilderness triggered a public outcry that eventually drove him from office.

In line with her ultra-conservative and libertarian bent, Ms. Norton, 47, spent much time in past years demonizing the very department that Mr. Bush has asked her to lead.

She has repeatedly called for Washington to cede much of its responsibility for managing federally owned lands to state and local officials, who she believes invariably do a better job.

"Progress on environmental issues is taking place today at the state and local levels," she declared. "And that is where we can see tremendous future progress if the federal government does not prevent that advance from taking place."

Is Ms. Norton's mission to diminish the Interior Department's presence? Is she going to spend more time having her agency step aside than step forward in protecting natural resources on federal land? Has it escaped her notice that the political exigencies of geographic proximity often make state and local officials more receptive to nearby extractive industries' demands for greater access to undeveloped public lands?

It certainly is disturbing that she has consistently sided with people who think their adjacent location to federal lands entitles them to a greater proprietary interest than the rest of the country. The truth is that the little old lady in Brooklyn, N.Y., has -- by law -- as much say about disposition of federally owned lands thousands of miles away as any individual living within a stone's throw.

Ms. Norton, a former Colorado attorney general, can be expected to make numerous conciliatory statements at her confirmation hearing, which was scheduled for today. She will undoubtedly express her fealty to the sanctity of nature and reassure senators that she is determined to protect wilderness values on public land.

Mr. Watt delivered similar flowery pledges at his confirmation hearing, only to do an about-face with vengeance shortly after taking office. The majestic landscapes that he had eulogized in order to impress his senatorial inquisitors quickly became fair game for bulldozers and oil drilling.

It is imperative that senators obtain a clear statement of Ms. Norton's positions on conservation and other environmental matters. They need to explore her numerous past ties to the energy-related industries she would regulate and question her about her skepticism toward the global warming threat.

If no inconsistencies are found in her testimony, lawmakers can at least establish a baseline to use against her if she strays from her professed pro-environmental stance.

Ms. Norton's reliance in Colorado on corporate self-audits to combat pollution raises a red flag. She appears to sometimes mistake permissiveness for flexibility as she vigorously promotes a system in which a company that reports environmental violations and then corrects them is granted immunity from fines.

There is nothing wrong with allowing companies freedom to tailor the way they comply with environmental regulations. But routinely exempting companies from liability for a pollution violation just because they eventually own up to it can invite disaster. It can remove the incentive for a company to prevent pollution in the first place.

One fervently hopes that Ms. Norton is not a "James Watt in skirts." Should she turn back the clock, however, Ms. Norton would be so out of sync with mainstream public opinion that she would likely be forced to unceremoniously vacate her post, much as Mr. Watt was compelled to do.

Edward Flattau writes about environmental issues.

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