Interior's Norton could wield significant power

At the Senate hearing, Norton would not say which Babbitt policies she would send to the scrap heap. And she distanced herself from comparisons to Watt. "I have only, really, spoken with him once in the last 10 years," she noted. Even Democratic Senators commented that the congenial Norton is far more reasonable than the in-your-face Watt.

In early January, an agitated group of environmental, labor, and civil rights advocates launched a media attack on Gale Norton, President Bush's choice to head the Department of the Interior, accusing her of opposing the wilderness and species protection laws she would be asked to uphold at Interior.

These groups portrayed Norton as an industry shill, and alleged that, while serving as Colorado's attorney general, she resisted pursuing civil rights cases. "Clearly this is a political payoff to Mr. Bush's extremist supporters in industry who have been yearning for decades to massively exploit the public lands," argued Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife.

But the cruelest cut the environmentalists thought they could deliver came when the Sierra Club described her as "James Watt in a skirt." Watt, the brash ultraconservative who served as President Reagan's first Secretary of the Interior, continues to be the environmental community's most dreaded bogeyman.

The comparison to Watt was inevitable. Norton was, after all, Watt's protege. She worked with him at the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation that Watt founded in Denver and later at the Interior Department during the Reagan era. Norton shares some of Watt's political philosophy. At a 1998 party for a Republican environmental group, Norton said she supports "market-oriented, property-rights-based, locally controlled solutions" to environmental problems. Her supporters say that she's sensitive to the need to preserve wilderness, but that she will also allow more resource extraction and recreation on some of the 436 million acres of public lands that fall under the Interior Department's jurisdiction.

Despite her ties to Watt, Norton's leadership style will more likely follow the one established by Bruce Babbitt during his eight years as Secretary of the Interior. Early in his tenure, which began in 1993, Babbitt gave up trying to persuade a gridlocked Congress to adopt stricter conservation laws. Instead, he aggressively reshaped national land-use policy by drawing on his own authority. In the process, Babbitt laid the groundwork for creating 20 national monuments and restricted mining, logging, and oil drilling on federal land.

Norton is in a similar position. Because the GOP controls the House and Senate by small margins, any legislation intended to overhaul the nation's bedrock environmental laws will be difficult to pass, particularly in the 50-50 Senate. But like Babbitt, Norton will have significant leeway to interpret existing federal law--a situation that frightens some environmentalists. "Gale, armed with a bunch of bright lawyers, could go back in and start reinterpreting the Endangered Species Act," said Don Barry, a former Interior Department lawyer who is now with the Wilderness Society. "They could announce a policy of non-enforcement. They could rewrite key legal opinions. That's what the power of the incumbency allows you to do."

Norton is described as a "team player" who is likely to have significant autonomy within the Bush Administration. Although a relative unknown inside the Beltway, Norton has ties to the President's inner circle: Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, served as Norton's campaign consultant in her 1996 run for a Senate seat.

Liberals view Norton's politics as "anti-environmental," but Bush doesn't. In early January, Bush rebuffed criticism of Norton's support for oil and gas exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "Well, guess who else thinks we ought to [explore], in order to make sure we've got enough energy for the nation? The President-elect!" Bush told reporters. "It shouldn't surprise people that I've picked people who share a philosophy with me."

Norton will also enjoy an open-door policy on the Hill with the two GOP leaders who have jurisdiction over Interior issues: Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, and House Resources Committee Chairman James V. Hansen, R-Utah. Both lawmakers have fought Clinton Administration policies limiting recreation and resource extraction on federal lands. Murkowski has long championed new oil development in Alaska, which Bush supports and former President Clinton opposed.

Hansen sees Bush's victory as an opportunity to reverse eight years of Democratic policies on federal land use. In December, he sent a lengthy letter to Bush outlining the Babbitt-era public land proposals that he believes should be scrapped. Bush's staffers have said that the new White House team will review all of the last-minute regulations and policies that were adopted by Clinton.

People who have worked with Norton say she's not likely to try to jam radical new land-use policies down the public's throat. "Gale is not the kind of person to go in with a meat cleaver and say, `I have this philosophical commitment,' " said Roger Marzulla, general counsel of Defenders of Property Rights, who was at the Justice Department when Norton was at Interior and who also worked with her at Mountain States Legal Foundation.

"She's a consensus builder," argued Denver lawyer Timothy M. Tymkovich, who was Colorado's solicitor general when Norton was attorney general. "She's got a proven track record of working well with diverse constituencies who are affected by decisions that she makes."

Supporters say that Norton objected to some of Clinton's land-use policies because Interior Department regulators often failed to talk to local residents, businesses, and government officials before passing judgment. "She is a person who believes that it's necessary to get as much local input as possible in making decisions," said Terry L. Anderson, executive director of the Political Economy Research Center, a pro-market think tank in Bozeman, Mont. He is also co-author of the book Free Market Environmentalism Today and a member of the Interior Department transition team. "So you won't see a Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument approach, where the Clinton Administration created the monument without even informing the Utah [congressional] delegation that it was setting aside 1.7 million acres."

But environmentalists protest that Norton, by relying primarily on consensus policy-making, will be abdicating the Interior Department's duty to manage U.S. parks and wilderness areas in the national interest. Barry of the Wilderness Society cited the example of a recent ban on snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park, which snowmobile companies are fighting. "The status quo was that thousands of snowmobiles were going into the park, spewing air pollution and spilling fuel onto the snow," he noted. "Regulators made a decision in which they just disagreed with the local interests. I worry that Norton could give local economic interests greater traction and veto over what the Feds do."

Some conservatives predict that Norton's appointment could result in a broader adoption of market-based policies throughout the Administration. "I think Gale will be an important educational force in the Bush Cabinet as well," said Anderson, who suggested that Bush include her in his Cabinet. "I think [Environmental Protection Agency Administrator] Christie Whitman will learn from Gale more about these market approaches."

In fending off comparisons to Watt, Norton said she's "had a lot of different experiences" in the 21 years since she completed law school and joined the Mountain States Legal Foundation. In 1984, she came to Washington with the Reagan Administration, serving first at the Agriculture Department and later as associate solicitor at Watt's Interior Department. In that post, she worked on an unsuccessful effort to persuade Congress to allow oil drilling in the Arctic wildlife refuge.

By 1990, Norton was back in Colorado, where she was twice elected attorney general. In 1996, she ran for an open Senate seat in that state, but lost in the Republican primary to the more conservative Wayne Allard, who went on to win the general election. When she left the attorney general's office in 1998, Norton joined the Denver law firm of Brownstein, Hyatt & Farber. One of her clients was NL Industries, a Houston-based lead manufacturer that is a defendant in lawsuits relating to cleanups at 75 toxic-waste sites and to children who were possibly poisoned by lead-based paints. During the past several years, Norton also helped create the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, a conservative organization that has been criticized for receiving funding from mining and chemical industry groups. She served as an environmental policy adviser to Bush's presidential campaign. And she's been affiliated with a range of conservative think tanks that espouse market-based, pro-business environmental policies.

Norton has a full plate of issues waiting for her at Interior. She has said that she will review dozens of Clinton Administration policies that were enacted in the past several months, including the creation of 20 national monuments on federal lands. Norton will face the sensitive issue of whether to allow drilling off the California and Florida coasts. She also must decide whether to go forward with a controversial management plan for Yosemite National Park that would slash car traffic and lodging in the overcrowded park.

Norton, her supporters say, could also plant the seeds for a variety of market-based environmental programs at Interior. Anderson said that Norton might, for example, develop an initiative allowing ranchers to sell and trade their grazing permits, a move that would allow environmentalists to buy permits and stop grazing on ecologically sensitive lands. She could also expand the fee demonstration program that has allowed the national parks to establish higher service fees and keep some of visitors' money to maintain their facilities.

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