« Return to this article

Know the West

Bush administration faces a reborn Interior


Now that the former attorney general of Colorado, Gale Norton, has been nominated as secretary of Interior (see story page 3), the cast of main characters is complete, and the four-year run of what is certain to be an interesting play can begin.

The details of the script will be written on the fly, but the broad outline is clear. George W. Bush, elected president fair and square by five out of nine members of the United States Supreme Court - a body Ralph Nader assured us would not play a major role in national affairs - does not have much of a majority or much of a platform to work with.

Let's take his plan to reform Social Security by allowing us to invest some of our old age money in the stock market. If Cisco and Lucent and Amazon rise from the dead, that plan might rise with them. For the moment, even market-oriented types are happy that stodgy government bureaucrats, rather than the wizards of Wall Street, are watching over their FICA funds.

So Bush and VP-elect Richard Cheney, by inclination and elimination, are left with tax cuts, with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and with all the little ANWRs around the West. They pledged to drill their way out of this latest energy crisis, and it's a pledge they will fight hard to keep. It is also a pledge environmentalists will fight just as hard to stop.

So long as gasoline prices remain below $2 a gallon, and the lights stay on sporadically, my money is on the environmentalists. The public has become very sophisticated when it comes to natural resources. We showed that in our calm reaction to the fires that swept the West last summer. We know that long before Alaskan oil can reach the pumps, the Bush recession (life is wondrously unfair) and conservation will have floated us out of this energy shortage.

Second, we live in the Environmental Age. We no longer reflexively choose to clear-cut and drill and graze wherever possible, just as we no longer light up on airplanes or assume that the only good wolf is a dead wolf. The burden of proof * making the case to mine and log * lies with natural resource industries.

So the administration, led here presumably by the new Interior secretary, Gale Norton, will probably lose the ANWR fight. But important though it is, ANWR will simply be a warm-up for the real drama: how the administration will handle the reborn Department of Interior.

Until Bruce Babbitt's eight-year term as secretary, the Department of Interior was a plaything of the Western states - the way a mouse is a plaything of a posse of cats. When you include the Forest Service lands, the federal government manages almost half of the Western states. Before Babbitt, Interior and the Forest Service were the scenes of largely uncoordinated fights over the use of this land for mining, logging, dam building, recreation and the rest.

No more. Babbitt has forged a public-lands policy for the West. Much of his success rested on work the environmental movement had done over the past few decades, making Americans aware that they owned a lot of wonderful land "out West," and pushing hard to protect this land and its wildlife, to stop the clear-cutting of the national forests, to stop the building of dams, and now to start the demolition of dams. Babbitt took the environmental positions, and merged those mainly national objectives with the legitimate needs, and a few wants, of the interior West.

Babbitt's strategy took eight years to implement because it wasn't a one-note approach, like former Interior Secretary James Watt's attempt to sell off the public land. Instead, Babbitt wove together a complex of themes. He took sledge hammers to dams, attacked the gold companies for using the 1872 Mining Law to fleece the public of its gold and silver and palladium, and opened cage doors to release wolves into the northern Rockies.

In the last year, Clinton and Babbitt dramatized their mastery of the public lands by creating or expanding 13 (and counting) national monuments. In addition, over at the Forest Service, Chief Mike Dombeck and Undersecretary Jim Lyons were protecting about 90,000 square miles of roadless national forest land - a land mass the size of Utah.

But Babbitt and company did more than simply adopt environmentalist positions. Babbitt was also protective of rural economies, and that is why his actions have the support of so many Westerners. If ranching remains viable in eastern Oregon, it will be because of the Steens Mountain land protection law he persuaded cattlemen, environmentalists and politicians to get behind.

He has also been a tough-minded friend to the logging industry and to land developers on the Southern California coastal plain and in southern Utah. He showed his friendship by helping to transform the Endangered Species Act from a law so powerful it tended to push many Westerners to the edge - to shoot, shovel and shut up, or to join last-stand wise-use groups like People for the USA! - into a law they could work with.

Babbitt's implementation of the Endangered Species Act put a new emphasis on Habitat Conservation Plans, which made it a law with wriggle room, and provided timber companies and others with some long-term security on land use. The goal was to use the ESA to give logging and other land-use industries an incentive to reform their land-use practices while staying in business. The industries and their U.S. senators screamed, of course. But the reforms Babbitt is attempting to impose on them are their only chance to stay on the land. Without them, they will almost certainly be swept out of the West by the force of national public opinion.

With less success, Babbitt has taken the same reformist approach to hardrock mining. Stymied by the refusal of Congress to change the 1872 Mining Law, he has attempted to modernize the industry through regulatory change. If these reforms are implemented by the Bush administration, Babbitt may do for mining what he has done for ranching and logging: give it a future in the West.

Now comes Gale Norton. If confirmed, she will be the first woman to run Interior. But she will be simply the latest in a long line of Interior secretaries who believe that the federal lands belong more to the Western states than they do to the nation at large. And that they belong more to the extractive industries and ranchers than to the public.

As a former associate of James Watt, and as a relatively traditional Western Republican, Norton should be easy to predict. But her situation is unique. She follows Babbitt, who has subordinated the claims of Western extractive industries to the public lands and their resources to a larger national interest. Moreover, he has convinced the nation, and even most Westerners, that this subordination is desirable.

Will Norton and VP Richard Cheney and the Western senators accept Babbitt's new arrangement, and spend four years implementing it? Or will they spend four years attempting to turn back an historic tide?

The answer to that question probably won't be forthcoming until after the test of strength over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.