Help wanted for public lands

March 14, 2006

Few tears are being shed by environmentalists - or even by many of her own employees - over Gale A. Norton's decision to step down after five years as U.S. interior secretary.

She was, like her predecessor and mentor James G. Watt, the antithesis of her job description as chief steward of public lands. She chose not to protect these national treasures but to exploit or destroy them.

Most famously, Ms. Norton opened millions of pristine federal acres in the West to oil and gas drilling. And she was head cheerleader for the still unsuccessful effort to move drilling rigs into Alaska's national wildlife refuge.

Plus, she delayed a ban on the snowmobiles polluting Yellowstone National Park, opened fragile national monument areas in Arizona to off-road vehicles, took the priority off conservation in management of national parks, proposed to sell up to 500,000 acres of federal land to raise budget money and worked diligently to remove from the public range wild horses that by law have a permanent home there.

Meanwhile, environmental and wildlife advocates in the career ranks of the department have grown increasingly demoralized.

Alas, it is too much to hope that President Bush will replace Ms. Norton with someone more sympathetic to the traditional mission of conserving federal wildlands. He doesn't support the mission himself.

Much damage could be averted, though, if Congress would fulfill its oversight responsibility to keep in check the administration's impulse to serve private and commercial interests at the expense of everyone else.

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