Bush Taps Watt Protege for Interior
By Brian Hansen
WASHINGTON, DC, December 29, 2000 (ENS) - In a move that sent shock waves through the environmental community, President elect George W. Bush today nominated Gale Norton to head up the Department of the Interior in his incoming administration. Norton, who served as attorney general for the state of Colorado for eight years, is a protégé of James Watt, President Ronald Reagan's highly controversial Interior Secretary.
Announcing his pick at the presidential transition office in Washington, Bush said that the nation needs an Interior Secretary who will "respect the land and honor our national commitment to conservation." Bush praised Norton as someone with a reputation for "building consensus on divisive issues," and said that his Interior Secretary will have a "clear charge" in his administration.
"We will restore our national park system, we will develop partnerships with states and local governments and private citizens to conserve our lands and resources, and to protect the endangered species of America," Bush said.
Bush added that he will work with Norton to "find ways to develop our nation's resources in a balanced and an environmentally friendly way."
But the president elect's remarks did not evoke confidence among the nation's environmental leaders, who feared that Norton's appointment will usher in a return to the types of policies put forth during the tumultuous Watt era.
"Gale Norton was a close deputy to James Watt, who was the most notorious anti-environmental Interior Secretary in history," said Bruce Hamilton, the Sierra Club's national conservation director. "I have yet to hear anything from Gale Norton's lips that would indicate that she doesn't agree with those kinds of policies."
Norton, in her brief remarks at the Friday morning ceremony, said nothing about her ties to Watt, a man viewed with horror by most environmentalists. Norton said she looks forward to tackling a host of "challenging and important" issues if she is confirmed as Interior Secretary by the U.S. Senate.
"I welcome the opportunity to work with President elect Bush to preserve our wonderful national treasures, to restore endangered species, and help Americans enjoy the great outdoors," Norton said.
INTERIOR SECRETARY WIELDS POWER OVER A THIRD OF THE NATION
One of the oldest Cabinet level positions in the U.S. government, the Interior Secretary is saddled with myriad responsibilities, such as managing millions of acres of federal lands and enforcing laws that protect endangered species.
As the nation's principal conservation agency, the Interior Department governs a host of federal agencies, including the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Minerals Management Service, the Office of Surface Mining, the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Norton noted that a full third of the nation's land is owned by the federal government. She said that she will work with all of the federal land management agencies to insure that America's public land is "used in an environmentally responsible way."
Echoing a principle frequently articulated by Bush, Norton said that the Interior Department "must build strong partnerships ... with states, local governments and private citizens to make thoughtful decisions about natural resources."
Norton said that as Colorado Attorney General, she worked with other policymakers in a "bipartisan way" to find common ground on difficult issues. She spoke about her affinity for Colorado's Rocky Mountains, where she said she frequently hikes with her dog, watches wildlife, and skis.
"In fact, if it were not for a call from the Bush transition team, my husband John and I would be skiing in those mountains today," Norton said.
NORTON APPOINTMENT A SURPRISE
Norton's nomination as Interior Secretary came as a surprise for many political observers. For weeks, the front runner for the post was thought to be Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Democrat turned Republican and the only Native American in the U.S. Congress.
But with the Senate split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, it could have been a political blunder for Bush to tap Campbell for the Cabinet post, sources tell ENS.
Norton served as Colorado Attorney General from 1991 to 1999. During her tenure, she litigated state and federal constitutional issues, defended the state of Colorado against federal mandates, and chaired the environmental committee of the National Association of Attorneys General, according to a biography distributed by the Bush administration.
Norton was appointed to the Western Water Policy Commission by President elect Bush's father, former President George Bush. She currently serves as the environment committee chair for the Republican National Lawyers Association, as well as general counsel of the Colorado Civil Justice League.
Norton is employed as senior counsel at Brownstein, Hyatt & Farber, P.C., a politically influential Denver law firm.
Prior to being elected Colorado Attorney General, Norton worked in Washington as an associate solicitor for the Interior Department, as well as an assistant to the deputy secretary of the Agriculture Department. In 1979, Norton went to work for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a Denver based legal center whose leaders describe it as being "dedicated to individual liberty, the right to own property, limited government and the free enterprise system."
Others describe the organization differently.
"The Mountain States Legal Foundation is a right wing, anti-environmental organization that is primarily set up to thwart environmental laws," said the Sierra Club's Hamilton. "Whenever there is a dollar to be made off of the public lands, the Mountain States Legal Foundation supports those people that want to make that dollar, regardless of whether it impacts wilderness, wild rivers, wildlife, clean air or clean water."
"This is a group that promotes exploitation over preservation," Hamilton added.
TIES TO JAMES WATT RAISE RED FLAGS
Norton was hired at the firm by James Watt, the organization's founding president. Watt later became President Ronald Reagan's Interior Secretary, but was later forced to resign because of his extremist beliefs regarding the stewardship of the nation's public lands.
The Mountain States Legal Foundation has been a major thorn in the side of the Clinton administration, which many environmental groups maintain has compiled one of the best environmental records in the nation's history. The foundation currently has a lawsuit pending against Clinton for his use of the federal Antiquities Act, which the outgoing president has used to create a host of national monuments throughout the American West.
William Perry Pendly, the group's current president, said in August that Clinton "thumbed his nose at the West, at the Constitution, and at Congress" when he used the Act to designate the monuments. President elect Bush has also been critical of the Clinton administration's initiative, and he has hinted that he might take steps to return the lands to their previous management status.
Norton, asked today if she would recommend such a move, said, "the West was concerned about those decisions in large part because there was no consultation with the people whose lives were most affected by land withdrawals by the Clinton administration. I will be discussing those issues with the Senate as part of my confirmation hearings, and at this time I have no position on what the incoming administration will be doing as to those designations."
Norton was also asked about opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuse to oil and gas exploration, an initiative decried by environmentalists and hundreds of the nation's most eminent scientists. Norton worked to open the refuge during her previous tenure at the Interior Department, and the initiative was a central plank of Bush's campaign platform.
"That is an issue ... that I cannot comment on in terms of my own actions on that, but I do support the president in the positions that he has taken during his campaign," Norton said Friday.
Susan Lefever, director of the Sierra Club's Rocky Mountain Chapter, said that Norton was "not very strong in enforcing environmental laws as [Colorado] attorney general." Levefer noted that Norton was a strong supporter of the state's "self audit" law," which grants prosecutorial immunity to industries that voluntarily disclose their pollution laws violations to state regulators.
"That doesn't bode well for a Secretary of the Interior," said Lefever, who noted that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has vigorously objected to the Colorado statute.
REPUBLICAN ENVIROS CRITICAL OF NORTON
Norton also once chaired an organization known as the Coalition for Republican Environmental Advocates (CREA), which even Republican environmentalists have denounced as an environmental fraud. Anne Callison, a Colorado resident and a board member of the group Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP), called CREA "the original greenscam."
"From my perspective, CREA was a front for a 'wise use' group," Callison said. "They've done nothing to protect human health, the environment, or to conserve a single acre of wilderness in this country."
CREA was founded in 1998, and according to its mission statement, was "dedicated to fostering environmental protection by promoting fair, community based solutions to environmental challenges."
The group held a fundraising event that year in Washington, where the keynote address was delivered by then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Other noted Republican lawmakers who were associated with the organization included Alaska Congressman Don Young, and Idaho Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth.
According to the League of Conservation Voters, the environmental voting records of the CREA members were among the worst on Capitol Hill.
CREA was funded by corporations and lobbying organizations that have long been the bane of the environmental movement, such as the Coors Brewing Company, the American Forest Paper Association, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the National Mining Association, and a host of petroleum companies.
The organization has also drew a sharp rebuke from Congressman Theodore Roosevelt IV, whose great-great grandfather is often heralded as the nation's most important environmental president. Congressman Roosevelt once declared that he was "not amused" that CREA had modeled its environmental "Teddy" award on his great-great grandfather.
Norton's affiliation with CREA, as well as her positions on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, were very troubling for Martha Marks, the president of Republicans for Environmental Protection.
"She does not have a good image among environmental organizations, including ours," Marks said. "We are going to give her a chance as Interior Secretary, but we have not bee encouraged by President elect Bush's environmental positions on many things."
More information about Norton and Bush's other Cabinet nominees is available on the incoming administration's website at: http://www.bushcheneytransition.com.