Environment

Good Riddance to Gale Norton

The former Interior Secretary will be greeted with open arms by the industries that benefited from her agenda of environmental devastation.
The rights of the public to the nation's natural resources outweigh private rights. -- Teddy Roosevelt

Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded. -- John Muir
As the Teapot Dome scandal of Warren G. Harding's presidency was one milestone in the history of American resource piracy, the tenure of Gale Norton as Secretary of the Interior is surely another.

Harding's Interior Secretary, Albert Fall, failed in his scheme to sell off the Teapot Dome oil reserves and pocket the money. He was prosecuted and sentenced to a year in prison. Gale Norton's timely exit on the heels of the Abramoff scandal that implicates top Interior Department officials could mean that she is worried, but it is not likely that she will face any prosecution for her giveaways to industry.

Harding, like G.W. Bush, had little regard for proper English -- Harding called for a return to "normalcy," while Bush says we should not "misunderestimate" him. On Harding's death, the poet E. E. Cummings said: "The only man, woman or child who wrote a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors is dead." But just as Bush surpasses Harding as a mangler of language, so the Bush administration far outstrips the Harding administration in the game of looting.

Gone are the days when corrupt officials took payments in "little black bags," as Albert Fall received his $100,000 payment for the Teapot Dome oil lease from Harry F. Sinclair. Fall also received a shipment from Sinclair of "six heifers, a yearling bull, two six-months-old boars, four sows and ... an English thoroughbred horse."

Today our new reality is that the tycoons and the officials are actually the same persons, or at least part of the same hive. Like insects that go through a complex life cycle from larva to pupa tof egg-laying adult, people like Gale Norton and her deputy secretary Stephen J. Griles will go from lobbyist to regulator to corporate board member. At every stage of the life cycle they have one purpose: to direct the flow of resources back to the corporate nest.

And so, when Norton claims she is leaving the Interior Department to set "new goals to achieve in the private sector," you know that she will be well supplied with hogs, heifers and whatever lucrative lawyering job she wants.

Gale Norton's number one tool, which she used like a common thief slips a credit card up a door jamb to spring a cheap lock, is the ideology known as "Wise Use." The "Wise Use" doctrine is founded on anti-government rhetoric that advocates eliminating any environmental regulations that might restrict economic development. Because she was so well known as a "Wise Use" ideologue, only John Ashcroft was a more controversial cabinet appointment in Bush's first term.

During her tenure as Secretary, Norton advanced this agenda through regulatory rollbacks, suppression of science, preferential treatment, and collusion with industry. For the most part, she was unable to enshrine "Wise Use" principles in regulations, with the exception of her new National Park Service regulations.

Norton proceeded to revamp the Park Service regulations despite the lack of any identified need for new rules. Now in the final phase of adoption, the new directive drastically changes the mission of our national parks from preservation to commercially sponsored recreation. If these rules are adopted, park managers won't be able to prevent development that harms wildlife and other natural features, and corporate logos will spring up like daisies.

These rules also require newly hired staff to take what amounts to a loyalty oath to the policies of the current administration. A loyalty oath may be the solution to the sticky problem of science that Norton kept running into. When her agency biologists reported that drilling in the Arctic Refuge would harm caribou, Norton rewrote the report before submitting it to Congress. She also suppressed a finding by the US Fish & Wildlife Service that new Army Corps rules for permitting development would devastate wetlands.

In fact, Norton created a climate of intimidation at the Interior Department that functions almost as effectively as an unconstitutional loyalty oath would: Last year the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility took a survey of Fish & Wildlife Service biologists and found that more than half of the respondents said agency officials had reversed or withdrawn the biologists' scientific conclusions under pressure from industry groups.

Lying to Congress and suppressing scientific findings. How is it that these are not prosecutable offenses?

In 2001, Oregon potato farmers in the upper portion of the Klamath River suffering from a prolonged drought demanded that the Interior Department give them water dedicated to fish. Gale Norton complied, and in 2002, at least 35,000 salmon died at the mouth of the Klamath. The Klamath runs are now so low that the Fisheries Service is preparing to close the salmon fishing season, ruining a $150 million dollar industry. Gale Norton is responsible. Why can't she be indicted for ruining a precious and irreplaceable natural resource?

Norton's supporters, like the National Association of Manufacturers, praise her primarily for her role in opening up the West to massive amounts of new energy development. Interior Department staff began referring to Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico as the "OPEC states," as the drilling permits multiplied and flew through the bureaucracy with minimal review and consultation with local citizens.

Norton's own proudest accomplishment, she says, was implementing her "four C's" program -- a supposedly new approach to public involvement that included "communication, consultation and cooperation, all in the service of conservation."

Unfortunately, the four C's seem only to apply to industry and not to local people. Take for instance the town of Grand Junction, Colorado. Last September the BLM informed the city that a few hundred acres in the town's watershed used for drinking water supplies would be offered for oil and gas drilling. Then in December, at the end of the public comment period, the BLM told the town that actually several thousand acres would be leased for drilling. The agency withheld the information because it would otherwise "taint" the competitive bidding process. The town does not want any drilling at all in their watershed. Why can't Gale Norton be indicted for destroying a town's water supply?

I can testify that the same process is happening in BLM's western forest lands where, on orders from Gale Norton, the BLM is tossing the Northwest Forest Plan out the window and preparing to log every last old growth forest that they manage in Washington, Oregon and California. Many public meetings are held, but they are all a waste of time because the communication, consultation and cooperation are not intended for local people but only for the timber industry.

Under Gale Norton's leadership, the Department of Interior has become nothing less than a big box store for the mining, timber, oil, gas, and coal industries. As CEO, Norton has eliminated all rivals to give her corporate customers "low, low prices every day." Meanwhile, fish and wildlife and all the rest of us who need clean air and water underwrite the true cost.

Bush's new nominee for Secretary of the Interior, Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne, is known for his animosity toward protecting the last wild roadless areas in Idaho. Unless something changes in Congress or the White House, unless Gale Norton is somehow made to pay the price for her looting of public resources, there is no doubt that he will keep the store open for business.
Kelpie Wilson is the environment editor of TruthOut.org.