Unwise Use: Gale Norton's New Environmentalism

By Helvarg, David | The Progressive, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Unwise Use: Gale Norton's New Environmentalism


Helvarg, David, The Progressive


IN HIS STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS, President Bush called for investing in hydrogen-powered cars. After initial reluctance, the Administration has also implemented Clinton-era proposals to reduce arsenic in drinking water and air pollution from diesel trucks and tractors. And it ordered General Electric to clean up PCB contaminants in the Hudson River. Reporting on what this Administration has done for the environment not only makes for a succinct paragraph but avoids the tedious listing process now required when invoking the ways in which the White House is rolling back a generation of environmental laws, regulations, and treaty commitments.

So when George Bush refers to environmentalists as "Green Green Lima Beans," it's a safe bet he's not engaged in any deep rethinking of policy. Still, as a politician he knows he has to at least appear committed to environmental protection, which is why his political brain, Karl Rove, recently claimed Bush is following in Teddy Roosevelt's environmentalist tradition. That would be the same Roosevelt who condemned "the landgrabbers and great special interests"--the coal, timber, and oil cartels. "The rights of the public to the nation's natural resources outweigh private rights," said T.R.

While the media has portrayed EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman as Bush's token environmentalist, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton has been his real point-woman in promoting "common-sense solutions to environmental policy"--the Republican rhetoric that functions as a pretext for pillage.

When George Bush stood in front of a giant sequoia in California on Earth Day two years ago and spoke of "a new environmentalism for the twenty-first century" that would "protect the claims of nature while also protecting the legal rights of property owners," Norton was by his side nodding approvingly. A veteran of the small but influential "Wise Use" movement, Norton helped Bush through his environmental tutorial as a Presidential candidate, providing the intellectual arguments that deregulation, devolution, and free markets are the best ways to achieve environmental goals.

Two decades after Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior James Watt used these same arguments to push for the privatization and industrialization of federal lands (among his quotes, "We will mine more, drill more, cut more timber"), Watt's agenda has again become government policy. "Twenty years later it sounds like they've just dusted off the old work," confirms Watt from retirement.

The 1988 Wise Use agenda was written by Watt biographer Ron Arnold, who is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. It called for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling, gutting the Endangered Species Act, opening wilderness lands to energy development, logging, and motorized recreation, and giving management of national parks over to private firms like Disney.

As early as October of 2001, Norton was arguing that opening ANWR to drilling would provide the equivalent of eighty years of Iraqi oil imports (pre-invasion) to the United States. She's also pursuing energy development, logging for "forest health" and motorized recreation on public lands, mountain-top removal for coal mining in Appalachia, and captive breeding of endangered species in lieu of habitat protection. She's reversed a plan that would have banned snowmobiles from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, she is limiting the amount of land set aside for wilderness protection, and she is moving forward with a plan to begin "outsourcing" National Park Service jobs to private firms.

"I wish we could take credit for that but we can't," admits Ron Arnold. "Sometimes you just put something out there long enough and it gets picked up, despite what you do."

There was a brief moment, in the earliest days of the Bush Administration, when it appeared the White House might balance its thirst for oil with a nod toward wilderness protection by naming John Turner as Secretary of the Interior. …

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