Five years ago, the Interior Department, which oversees one-quarter of the nation’s land, 9,000 employees and nine federal agencies, appeared to have turned a corner. Outgoing Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt had just pulled off a remarkable conservation offensive, getting his boss, Bill Clinton, to create and expand more than a dozen national monuments in the West. The monuments capped the Babbitt team’s many efforts, from trying to reform the 1872 Mining Law to implementing habitat protection plans for imperiled species living in the path of growth.
So thoroughly had Babbitt pushed conservation that when Gale Norton, a former attorney general from Colorado, took over the reins in 2001, several pundits predicted that she would have a difficult time dismantling a "reborn" Interior Department.
But that’s not how things worked out.
Within months, Babbitt’s mining rules were laid to waste, the National Park Service was pressured to reverse its ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone, and plans were laid to open up potential Bureau of Land Management wilderness areas in the Rockies, as well as the Arctic Refuge, to oil and gas development. Directives from Norton’s office made leasing and drilling on public lands as "streamlined" as ordering a meal at a drive-through restaurant.
Norton, the first woman to serve as Secretary of Interior, sat at the center of this counter-revolution, yet she was hardly noticeable. Though she showed up for the occasional photo-op, she rarely mixed it up with Western constituencies the way Babbitt did. Her undersecretaries, especially the now-departed J. Steven Griles, often played more central roles in the push to open public lands to energy companies. Even in the one area where conservationists give her credit — pushing the states that use Colorado River water to come up with a drought plan — Norton played the role of catalyst more than innovator.
She adopted a language that suited her retiring nature and counterbalanced her department’s hard-edged advocacy for development. In her infrequent interviews with the media, she touted the Four C’s: communication, consultation and cooperation, all in the service of conservation. Even as she sidestepped questions about local opposition to drilling in sensitive areas, she pointed proudly to new monies Interior was making available to private landowners to protect wildlife habitat.
But Norton’s record in the areas she said she cared about the most — private lands conservation, market-based environmentalism and local collaboration — was uneven. She held the first-ever White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation but passed up opportunities to foster cooperation on the ground. Norton nixed a locally supported plan to reintroduce grizzly bears in the Idaho wilderness, and she backed away from allowing willing ranchers to sell their grazing permits to conservation groups.
Under Norton’s watch, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the largest single source of money for land purchases, trades and conservation easements, dried up, even as its funding from offshore oil and gas drilling revenues increased.
It’s fair to say that Gale Norton will not be remembered as a visionary Interior Secretary. At the same time, she may be remembered for her role in advancing the cause of progressive politics in the West.
In pockets around the region, a new coalition of conservation-minded Westerners has emerged, especially near the red-hot gas fields of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Utah and New Mexico. It includes ranchers and farmers, realtors and retirees, hunters and environmentalists, newcomers and oldtimers, who understand that the only way to protect the places they love is to band together. Call it the Quality of Life coalition.
Ironically, it is what Babbitt assumed was already in place a dozen years ago. It’s what surfaced in the 2004 elections in Colorado and Montana, with the election of pro-conservation lawmakers in the state Legislatures and Congress. It’s also what’s likely to appear in force again at the mid-term elections in 2006.
Meanwhile, President Bush’s nominee to replace Norton, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, is no friend of the environmental community. Yet the former U.S. Senator would be wise to consider the demographic shifts that are remaking the economic, social and political fabric of the West. If he has any slack in that tight White House leash, he might want to meet the Westerners who make up the Quality of Life coalition. They’d tell him that the federal government’s mad rush to drill for gas leaves no room for private land values, wildlife, wilderness or just plain common sense.
Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is the paper’s publisher in Paonia, Colorado.