The New Wild Order

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

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“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?


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.


DURING HIS campaign, Bush committed $4.9 billion toward fixing a backlog of maintenance problems—specifically with tourist attractions and highways—in the national parks. But not all protected federal lands will receive the same spit-and-polish attention. Most notably, the president.intends to open up Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR (see “The Slippery North Slope,” Dispatches, November 2000) to oil exploration. Environmentalists abhor drilling there not only because doing so would threaten a place sometimes called “America’s Serengeti” for what the U.S. Geological Survey estimates is as little as five months’ worth of oil, but because expanding petroleum consumption is exactly the wrong energy policy in a world increasingly endangered by global warming.

But Bush is skeptical that humans and their fossil-fuel use are responsible for what he has called the “slight” warming now under way. His view is hardly a surprise, given that he has spent most of his life in the oil business and still surrounds himself with former oil executives, including Vice-President Dick Cheney. Bush’s complacency is contradicted, however, by dozens of reports from the scientists of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In late January, Bush used high natural-gas prices and the power-deregulation crisis in California to announce steps to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil—making it clear that legislation opening ANWR up to drilling would be the first order of business. (Critics pointed out that new Alaska oil would offer no relief to California’s straining grid.) “Americans love the outdoors, but they also love heated homes and driving their cars,” says Utah’s James Hansen.

The Senate’s second-ranking Democrat scoffs at Hansen’s suggestion that the environmental impact of exploration can be lessened with advanced slant-drilling techniques. “There’s about as much chance of them drilling in the Alaska refuge as there is of me doing a back flip off this chair,” says Senator Harry Reid from Nevada. “I don’t think they can get 50 votes for it, and I guarantee they can’t get [the] 60” needed to override a Democratic filibuster.

Hansen also favors Bush’s plan to overturn Clinton’s policies on forests and monuments, complaining that Clinton put Western lands off-limits without consulting those most affected by his decisions. “You have to consult with the local people who live there, who raise their kids there,” he says, “and not just assume that you’re smarter than those people and hand down the process by fiat from Washington.”

Mike Bader of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies says reversing the roadless forest rule won’t be easy. It would “require new public comment periods, a new Federal Register rule, and probably public hearings—there would be a lot to undo,” says Bader. Still, as this story went to press, the first legal attack on the policy was already underway in Alaska.

Gale Norton swore under oath that she would enforce the nation’s environmental laws. But Bush received substantial campaign contributions from the oil, timber, and minerals industries, and their spokespersons have applauded his environmental agenda.

“You have to realize that every corporate lobbyist in Washington is going to their clients saying, ŒWe’ve got Republicans running the Congress and White House, and that’s likely to last only two years, so we’d better get what we want right away,'” explains Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust. “But I’m not sure Bush can perceive there’s a huge political danger here. For all the talk about this being such an experienced Cabinet, it’s filled with people who have been out of the political forefront for eight years, including Dick Cheney, who was not here in Washington to see how Newt [Gingrich] got his head handed to him when he tried to gut environmental laws in 1995.”

“There are political risks here,” concedes Steve Hayward. “But I do think Bush is genuine when he says he wants environmental progress.”

But will Bush be able to convince America that green policies based on takings theory, environmental federalism, and corporate self-auditing are the ticket? The challenge would be imposing under any circumstances; it is doubly so for a president whose legitimacy is doubted by many and who faces a gridlocked Congress. For now, all that’s clear is that the coming battles will be ferocious and carry the highest of stakes, both for Bush’s presidency and the planet.