portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article

Norton versus the Environment

norton is committing ecocide!
The oil, gas, mining and timber industries cheered loudly when Gale Norton was named Secretary of the Interior. "She's a fantastic choice," gushed Jack Ekstrom, director of governmental and industry affairs at the Denver-based Forest Oil Corporation. They had good reason to celebrate.

Norton, who now has logged 16 months as the chief steward of about 500 million acres, or one sixth of the nation's land, is compiling a record as perhaps the most anti-environmental Interior Secretary in history -- even worse, perhaps, than notorious Reagan Interior Secretary James Watt, who resigned from his post after trying to cede public lands to special interests and losing the confidence of the American people.

As Interior Secretary, Norton can do more to hurt or help America's wildlife and public lands than any other American. She is responsible for the national parks, the national wildlife refuges and the public rangeland. She controls numerous federal agencies -- including the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Office of Surface Mining, and she oversees enforcement of the Endangered Species Act and other major environmental laws.

Norton has run roughshod over public lands under the guise of "moving from conflict to cooperation" with industry. But conservationists say her responsibility as Interior Secretary requires her to defend natural resources from huge companies seeking quick profits at the expense of those resources. "Gale Norton is the greatest threat to America's wildlife and natural heritage today," Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen says. "Our last remaining wild land is quickly vanishing, and we desperately need a steward who will passionately implement and enforce laws protecting those places and the wildlife that depends on them for survival. Instead, our Interior Secretary is determined to undermine those laws for her friends in industry."

Norton is an ideological extremist who worked for two decades to dismantle the very laws the Interior Department is sworn to uphold. Before becoming Interior Secretary, she espoused the "right to pollute" and other extreme positions, including support of laws allowing polluters to police themselves. As Colorado attorney general, she was hostile to environmental protection and took a head-in-the-sand approach to polluters. She stood by, for instance, as cyanide leaks from the Summitville gold mine killed wildlife in 17 miles of the Alamosa River. As a lawyer, she represented the oil industry, loggers and miners. She was a senior attorney at the arch-conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation under its founder, the bombastic Watt.

Environmentalists warned against Norton from the day she was nominated to the Bush Cabinet. Defenders of Wildlife helped lead the fight against her nomination and supporters sent 100,000 e-mails to senators urging her defeat. The effort to derail her confirmation failed after Norton assured the U.S. Senate that she would uphold environmental law and renounced the controversial positions she espoused throughout her prior career. She has not lived up to those promises.

So far, Norton has managed to operate mostly under the radar screen of public scrutiny. That's because many of the harms she has committed so far have been a result of her refusing to act. For example, she has dragged her heels on listing many vanishing wildlife species as endangered, pushing them closer to extinction. Wildlife that's already protected under the Endangered Species Act is losing critical habitat because Norton is refusing to fight lawsuits by homebuilders and others bent on unbridled development.

She has politicized the Interior Department by filling numerous key positions with executives and lobbyists from resource-extracting industries. Together, they have moved briskly to open more fragile public lands to oil and gas drilling, mining and off-road vehicles - sometimes even refusing to conduct environmental reviews mandated by federal law. Government scientists who object have been silenced or ignored.

James Watt was outspokenly anti-environment and proud of it. With his self-righteous proclamations, he inflamed the public against him. Norton is Madison Avenue smooth, appearing frequently for photos at scenic locales to declare her passion for conservation while working quietly at the same time to exploit our pristine wild places for her friends in industry. As Schlickeisen said, "She has proven that she is no James Watt. She's worse. And unlike Watt, she's getting away with it."

On the following pages are some examples of the effect Norton has had so far on America's wildlife and wild lands. Although by no means a complete accounting, they paint a dismal picture of the Secretary's record as the nation's steward.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"I welcome the opportunities to work with President-elect Bush to preserve our wonderful national treasures, to restore endangered species, and help Americans enjoy the great outdoors."
- Gale Norton at the announcement of her nomination for Secretary of the Interior, December 28, 2000


Just when gray wolves are gaining a tentative foothold in their former wild range, Norton wants to proceed with a plan to strip their federal protections. The proposal, which could be announced as early as this summer, could lead to the premature removal of gray wolves in most of the United States from the endangered species list and could prevent them from being restored to other parts of their historic range. Once all but wiped out in the lower 48 states by extermination campaigns, wolves are just now struggling for survival again in the wild, and wildlife scientists say they need protection for their fragile recovery to continue. Under the new plan, the fate of wolves would be turned over to state governments that, their history strongly suggests, would not protect the animals. In Idaho, for instance, vigilantes have been killing wolves with the illegal Compound 1080 poison and the legislature has approved a resolution calling for the removal of wolves "by whatever means necessary."


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"I...believe that oil and gas development can successfully coexist with wildlife in Alaska's arctic region."
- Norton statement on the administration's energy policy before the House Resources Committee, June 6, 2001


Norton was the oil industry's best friend in the most recent debate over drilling for oil in the fragile coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In speeches across the country, she twisted the truth to ballyhoo drilling as a public-policy marvel, claiming it would promote America's energy independence, strengthen national security and create three-quarters of a million jobs -- all while leaving the refuge and its teeming herds of caribou, flocks of migratory birds and denning polar bears virtually undisturbed. But one of Norton's own Interior agencies, the U.S. Geological Survey, had estimated that the amount of oil most likely to be extracted would satisfy U.S. demand for only six months -- hardly enough to even dent the need for foreign supplies. Her claim about jobs came from a 12-year-old, oil-industry-funded study that has been thoroughly discredited by at least five independent analyses. As for the footprint of oil development, Norton insisted that it would be a mere 2,000 acres. But that figure takes into account only the oil drilling pads themselves and doesn't include the industrial complex that would spread like a spider's web across virtually the entire coastal plain -- the hundreds of miles of roads and feeder pipelines, refineries, living quarters for hundreds or thousands of workers, landfills, water reservoirs, docks and gravel causeways, production plants, gas processing facilities, seawater treatment plants, power plants and gravel mines. As ARCO's Ronnie Chappell acknowledged to the Los Angeles Times, "We can't develop [oil] fields and keep wilderness."


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-AK): "If Congress is to undertake the debate on this issue [drilling in the Arctic refuge], will you commit to aid those debates with the very best science available from the Department of the Interior?"
Norton: "Absolutely. I view the role of the Department of Interior as helping provide the information to this Congress so that you can make an informed decision."

- Confirmation hearings for Gale Norton as Secretary of the Interior, Senate Committee on Energy and
Natural Resources, January 18-19, 2001


Despite her assurances in her Senate confirmation hearings, Norton is making a habit of quashing scientific evidence in an apparent attempt to please Big Oil and other special interests. Last July in written testimony submitted to the U.S. Senate she misrepresented the findings of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists that oil drilling would harm caribou on the coastal plain of the Arctic refuge. She later admitted to having made "mistakes" in her testimony. This January it was disclosed that she never submitted scathing criticism from her own agency of plans to relax wetlands protection rules. Then, ignoring years of scientific reports, she decided that drilling in the Arctic refuge wouldn't harm polar bears or violate U.S. treaty obligations to protect them. "It's become a dismal pattern; when the science doesn't agree with her position, Secretary Norton simply ignores or silences the science," Defenders' Schlickeisen says.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"I would like to make sure that when we are making decisions, we are hearing from everyone."
- Norton during her Senate
confirmation hearings, January 2001


With Norton at the helm, the oil, timber and mining industries have placed their executives and lobbyists directly into key Interior positions, gaining unprecedented power to undermine the laws protecting our vanishing natural resources. As her special adviser on the Arctic refuge, for instance, she appointed Camden Toohey, director of the pro-oil development group Arctic Power, which exists solely to promote drilling in the refuge. J. Steven Griles -- former lobbyist for Occidental Petroleum and the National Mining Association -- is Norton's top deputy. She created a new number three slot of associate deputy secretary for James Cason, former deputy assistant secretary under James Watt.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"We ought to have a cooperative working relationship with the states. And when decisions are made in a way that involves those states, those I think are the best decisions in the long run."
- Norton during her Senate
confirmation hearings, January 2001


Over the objections of the citizens of California, Norton is trying to force the state to accept oil rigs just four miles off its coast. The Interior Department appealed a federal court's ruling that allowed the state to prevent drilling on 36 offshore leases that have existed since the 1970s but have not been developed. "This is a property rights issue," Norton spokesman Mark Pfeifle told the Washington Post. Of the oil companies, he said, "We have to watch out for their interests too." Defenders of Wildlife intends to go to court to support the state. California Resources Secretary Mary Nichols said the poor-quality oil in the 36 leases is "closer to asphalt than something that you'd put in your car" and deadly to ocean life.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"Using consultation and collaboration, forging partnerships with interested citizens, we can succeed in our effort to conserve America's most precious places."
- Norton during her Senate
confirmation hearings, January 2001


It was a grass-roots plan that earned broad popular support even the timber industry was for it. But Norton stopped the citizen-run initiative to bring grizzly bears back to a vast swath of public land in the remote Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho and Montana. Approved by the Clinton administration, this unlikely collaboration by conservationists, timber industry officials and mill workers gave unprecedented control to local citizens -- exactly the kind of balanced, grass-roots solution that Norton herself had touted for endangered-species problems. Scientists saw the project as critical to the long-term survival of grizzlies in the American West. "The grizzly bear is a noble symbol of wild America -- or what's left of it," Schlickeisen said. "The Selway-Bitterroot wilderness is extremely remote and as big as the state of Rhode Island. If Norton won't act to implement this recovery plan for this animal in this place, then how can Americans rely on her to protect any endangered wildlife anywhere?"


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM): "Can you give this committee assurance that if confirmed, you would feel comfortable enforcing the existing laws and regulations of the Department of Interior as they now stand?"
Norton: "Mr. Chairman, I have served eight years in the capacity of the state attorney general, enforcing the laws of Colorado and of the United States. And I feel very comfortable in enforcing the laws as they are written. I will be fully committed to ensuring that our nation's environmental laws and laws for the protection of natural resources will be fully enforced."

- Norton Senate confirmation hearings, January 2001


Norton has delayed, limited, crippled and scuttled initiatives to save imperiled wildlife and its vanishing habitat. Sea turtles, grizzly bears, piping plovers, flat-tailed horned lizards, manatees and pygmy owls are among the wildlife whose survival has already become more tentative on Norton's watch. Shirking her obligation to enforce laws protecting our environment, Norton has declined to oppose a single lawsuit by home builders and other developers attacking federal protections for critical wildlife habitat. As the Los Angeles Times put it in a March 26 editorial: "Ranchers, home builders and others in favor of pell-mell development are blasting away at the federal Endangered Species Act like hunters on a rampage through a zoo. And the people whom President Bush appointed to defend the act are either cowering or cheering them on.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"I support the Endangered Species Act and the preservation of endangered species."
- Norton during her Senate
confirmation hearings, January 2001


In her first year as Secretary, Norton tried to cripple the Endangered Species Act by giving herself sole discretion to decide which animals and plants to protect under the law. Her proposal also would have rendered meaningless a provision of the law that allows citizens to directly petition the government to protect wildlife. Citizens could still go to court, but the Norton-requested provision would bar the federal government from spending any money to enforce the results of the lawsuits. Schlickeisen called the proposal "an invitation to extinction." He told the Los Angeles Times, "The idea that she would be given discretion to decide which species, and when they would be listed, would be to invite a total emasculation of the act." Added Congressman Edward Markey of Massachusetts, "If American citizens can't sue to assure the federal government protects endangered species and their critical habitats, who will? The animals?" Thankfully, Congress quickly shelved her plan.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"I intend to make the conservation of America's natural resources my top priority."
- Norton during her Senate
confirmation hearings, January 2001


Speeding to the aid of boat manufacturers, marinas and pleasure boaters, Norton is trying to weaken protections for Florida's endangered manatees. She has refused to implement a landmark court settlement entered into last year by her own department to establish safe havens for manatees from reckless boaters. And she ignored the objections of a supervisor in one of her own agencies when she decided to allow boat manufacturers to test watercraft at high speeds inside existing manatee sanctuaries. In a letter uncovered by Defenders of Wildlife and other environmental groups, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Field Supervisor David Hankla strongly opposed such a plan by the state of Florida. Defenders of Wildlife litigation director Mike Senatore called it "a classic exemption carved out for a politically well-connected industry." Speeding boats killed at least 81 manatees last year and 46 in the first four months of this year alone.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"We encourage everyone to draw inspiration from our greatest national treasures, and let them serve as reminders that this nation will endure and prosper."
- Norton speaking on National Public Lands Day
September 29, 2001


At Yellowstone National Park, there were so many snowmobiles this winter that rangers at entrance gates wore gas masks to ward off dizziness, headaches and nausea from the fumes. Thousands of snowmobiles roared past Old Faithful and the rest of the park's natural wonders on weekends. "It's a nightmare," park employee Ashea Mills told the Washington Post in February. "It's chaos. It's loud. It's smelly. It's dangerous." But at the behest of snowmobile manufacturers, Norton is trying to overturn a proposal that would ban snowmobiles in the park by the winter of 2003-2004.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"The great wild places and unspoiled landscapes of this country are the common heritage of all Americans, and we must both conserve them and manage them for Americans living today, and for the Americans of the future -- our children and our children's children. That is our goal."
- Norton during her Senate
confirmation hearings, January 2001


Norton has proceeded carelessly to open fragile public lands to oil and gas production. Norton rolled back protections for Wyoming's Jack Morrow Hills - a habitat for the endangered mountain plover and a rare type of desert elk.

From Washington, she has pressured regional land managers to fast-track oil and gas leases. One memo told a Utah office that "when an application for permission to drill comes in the door," that work should be "their No. 1 priority." The spectacular Green River Basin in Wyoming, the Otera Mesa in New Mexico, and land adjacent to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are among the places at risk. Norton acted so irresponsibly in trying to approve a controversial oil exploration in Utah's Dome Plateau that her own administrative review board rebuked her and stopped the project. The board said environmental reviews mandated by federal law had been "capriciously" ignored.

Jeff Woods is web editor for Defenders of Wildlife.