Sunday, March 12, 2006

Gale Norton Resigns

The New York Times
Gale Norton Resigns

Like her mentor, James Watt, the maniacally anti-environmental interior secretary under Ronald Reagan, Gale Norton came to Washington convinced that the pendulum of public policy had swung too far in favor of the protection of America's natural resources at the expense of their commercial exploitation — especially by the oil, natural gas and mining industries.

In this she was little different from the other ideologues whom President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney picked to fill most of the administration's important environmental posts. But as the cheerful, upbeat face of a retrograde public policy, she may have been the most successful of them all.

In public Ms. Norton spoke winningly of what she called her four C's: "cooperation, communication and consultation, all in the service of conservation." But this was little more than comfy language diverting attention from her main agenda, which was to open up Western lands, some of them fragile, to the extractive industries. Perhaps her signature moment was a secret deal in 2003 with Mike Leavitt, then governor of Utah, in which she not only exposed 2.6 million acres of previously protected lands to commercial development but also renounced her statutory authority to recommend additional lands for wilderness protection. There will be no new wilderness under my watch, she seemed to say, but there will be oil and gas.

The agency she leaves behind is not a particularly happy one. Many National Park Service employees oppose her rewrite of the service's management philosophy, a rewrite favoring recreational use over conservation. Biologists at the Fish and Wildlife Service have complained of political interference. Her emasculation of the mining laws pleased few outside the industry. The White House has hacked unmercifully at key departmental programs — including the vital Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Mr. Bush vowed to protect — without audible complaint from the secretary.

Ms. Norton has been an extraordinarily faithful steward of the Bush agenda — but not, we are sad to say, of the lands she was obliged to protect.