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
PERHAPS THE most difficult pill for Bush's critics to swallow is the new president’s insistence that he disagrees only with the environmental movement’s tactics, not its goals. Says Hayward, "Bush¹s point is, ’Tell me how to [make the environment better], but not through the traditional way of increased regulations handed down from Washington.’" According to Terry Anderson, executive director of the Political Economy Research Center (a conservative policy research group based in Bozeman, Montana) and a participant at the May 1999 meeting, Gale Norton argued that day that Bush should embrace a philosophy of "environmental federalism." The idea, Anderson says, is that Washington should "devolve some responsibility for meeting environmental standards to local levels, where [officials] have better information about how to reduce pollution cost-effectively."

Cleaning up toxic waste sites, for example, can be most efficiently overseen by local regulators, argues Anderson. And why should Beltway bureaucrats bar four-wheelers from the nation¹s Western forests? James Hansen, the Utah Republican whose chairmanship of the House Resources Committee makes him one of the key environmental players in Congress, contends that "the majority of the people who use those roads are people like me, who fish, hunt, backpack, maybe use an ATV they should have the right to use BLM roads—those people are paying the taxes."

On such contentious issues, Norton, 46, will be George Bush¹s point person. Sometimes called the nation's landlord, the Interior Secretary oversees 436 million acres of land—approximately 19 percent of the country's terra firma. Environmentalists could not imagine a worse choice for the job than the woman who spent the first four years of her career at James Watt's Mountain States Legal Foundation. Watt, after all, derided environmentalists as "Bolsheviks" during his own tenure as Interior Secretary.

Newly confirmed Secretary Gale Norton was still not talking to the media as this story went to press. But Marti Allbright, her chief deputy in the Colorado Attorney General's office, says Norton rejects the Sierra Club's characterization of her as "James Watt in a skirt." Allbright calls her a "judicious decision maker [who will]... listen to all the facts." Beyond this difference in style, Allbright could supply no examples of policy where Norton disagrees with her former mentor. Watt himself praised Norton's nomination, and says that she has maintained a close relationship with his firm.

Allbright did confirm that Norton embraces a legal theory known as "takings," which Watt's firm was among the first to champion. The approach asserts that the government must compensate a landowner if a public policy precludes economic exploitation of his property. For example, if the presence of an endangered species bars a landowner from logging his acreage, the government must compensate him for his loss.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, tend to equate takings with paying people to obey the law. At her confirmation hearings, Norton said she wants to develop "incentive-based approaches that encourage [landowners] to protect endangered species on their property."

Both Norton and Bush—and Christine Todd Whitman, the new Environmental Protection Agency administrator—have also embraced the idea of corporate self-audits, another policy rooted in property-rights theory. "Self-auditing is not applied in place of current regulations but in addition to them," says Allbright. "[It] is meant to encourage companies to take the extra step toŠ proactively look for problems."

Norton¹s self-audit philosophy was severely tested in what Colorado officials called the worst environmental disaster in the state¹s history. In 1992, a 17-mile stretch of the Alamosa River was damaged by cyanide and acids that spilled from a gold mine operated by Summitville Consolidated Mining. Company officials failed to notify the state of the spill; instead, they fled the country—and regulators didn't catch the problem until neighbors complained about the river's dead fish and discolored rocks. At her confirmation hearings, Norton said her Colorado department was "frustrated" over the Summitville incident, but added that her efforts had extracted millions of dollars from the company that will go toward cleanup efforts.


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