The New Wild Order

The Bush administration has a plan to manage the nation's open spaces. But will America buy it?

Apr 1, 2001
Outside Magazine
"I WILL BE THE next president of the United States," George W. Bush told a small group of advisers gathered at the Texas Governor's mansion in Austin one afternoon in May 1999. "And when I leave office, the air will be cleaner, the water will be cleaner, and the environment will be better.

"Tell me how I¹m going to make that happen."

During his presidential campaign, Bush openly admitted he had little experience in global affairs—a shortcoming his advisers sought to remedy with dozens of tutorials on foreign policy, global economics, and other issues of international concern. But the May 1999 meeting was one of few such sessions devoted to environmental matters, according to Steve Hayward, a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank in San Francisco, who participated in the bull session. The conference took place in the mansion¹s living room, says Hayward, and included some 15 conservative policy experts. Among them was a little-known former Colorado attorney general named Gale Norton, who sat on a couch beside Hayward. No one knew that just under two years later, she would be confirmed as the nation¹s 48th Secretary of the Interior.

By the end of the afternoon, the group had framed an approach to environmental issues based on private-property rights, market mechanisms, and local, rather than federal, regulation. Bush was neither quiet nor particularly articulate in the discussions, Hayward recalls. "He was more comfortable with issues he¹d handled as governor—land use, air quality, water—but [he was] more out of his depth in global issues like oceans, global warming, and so forth."

Much of the 43rd president's current environmental and public lands to-do list was forged that afternoon. That agenda now includes trying to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and millions of additional acres of public land to oil exploration, and scrutinizing the Clinton administration's ban on new roads and logging in 58 million acres of national forest. The new guard also intends to review Clinton's designation of six million acres of public land and waters as National Monuments, off-limits to most development.

But will the country accept these policies? Bush¹s approach marks a sharp departure from Clinton's, but also from the popular consensus that strong federal environmental protections work best. In the weeks before she was confirmed, perhaps the most damning opposition to Interior Department nominee Gale Norton came from the Republicans for Environmental Protection, a group that called her "a divisive choiceŠwho holds views shared by only a minority in our party and the nation at large."

Rejecting such allegations at her amicable Senate confirmation hearings in mid-January, Norton characterized herself as "a compassionate conservative and a compassionate conservationist." Her critics aren¹t buying that. Greenpeace USA executive director John Passacantando promises that if Bush tries to drill in Alaska, "He¹ll end up a one-term president, just like his father. The environmental movement almost should encourage Bush to go into Alaska, considering how enraged our millions of members would get."

That may be no idle threat. An April 2000 Gallup poll found that 83 percent of Americans support the goals of the environmental movement; a politician crosses such broad sentiment at his own peril. The last attempts to shift environmental policy sharply to the right—in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan¹s Interior Secretary James Watt, and in the 1990s by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich—ended in political disaster for both men. Will George W. Bush make the same mistake?


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