Bush Interior nominee brings dubious record

Environment: Controversial Coloradan raises doubts about Bush commitment to conservation.

January 23, 2001

THE INTERIOR Department's historic mission is to protect and conserve the nation's priceless treasury of natural resources.

And decisions made by one leader about use of public lands and treatment of endangered creatures have an impact long after that leader has gone.

That's why the nomination of Gale Norton as interior secretary raises serious questions -- about the Bush adminstration's commitment to protecting America's natural resources, and about the president's pledge to create a centrist administration.

Yes, Mr. Bush will press for drilling oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, which President Clinton did not permanently prevent. And he will review his predecessor's late-term order to set aside 58 million acres of national forest as roadless wilderness.

But those are predictable decisions from a chief executive with Mr. Bush's ideological beliefs.

In that regard, the appointment of Ms. Norton, a former Colorado attorney general and lobbyist for a lead company, is not crucial.

But on less prominent issues, where cabinet-level decisions may carry the day, Ms. Norton's background and beliefs are more troubling.

She has a long record of fighting environmental regulation, advocating state control over federally owned lands and promoting landowner rights, even to pollute. She favors compensation for property owners and industries affected by federal decisions, and defends laughable "self-audits" of industrial polluters.

These positions openly contradict the role of the chief protector of our national lands, endangered species and irreplaceable natural resources. They don't represent mainstream views on environmental protection, raising questions about Mr. Bush's broader views of the environment. They even show a profound disrespect for the brand of Republican environmentalism pioneered by Theodore Roosevelt.

Nevertheless, this is the president's choice to make. And unfortunately, the Senate is unlikely to oppose Ms. Norton unless some flaw in her character or personal life is exposed and exploited before the vote.

Ms. Norton's supporters say her rhetoric does not reflect her balanced record as state attorney general.

But the nation must hold her and Mr. Bush closely accountable for their stewardship of our national heritage.

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