Libertarian Belle

Gale Norton Rings in an America Where Polluters Police Themselves and Environmentalists Go Extinct

 WASHINGTON, D.C.—As she sailed through her Senate confirmation hearing last week, interior secretary nominee Gale Norton played the classic moderate, draping herself with the dual mantles of "conservative" and "conservationist."

What bullshit.

A libertarian from the West, Norton has spent the last two decades railing against federal control of public lands and doing all she could to subject their water and energy resources to the bracing reality of the marketplace. "I hate government telling me what to do," she once said. "And I assume other people do."

illustration by Roberto Parada

As Colorado's attorney general in the mid '90s, she chalked up a scandalous record: looking the other way in the face of damaging pollution, dragging her feet on prosecuting big business, even challenging the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to override state law. When a gold mine spilled cyanide into a local river, killing all aquatic life along a 17-mile stretch, Norton declined to press criminal charges and stalled so badly the feds stepped in. In another spectacular case, she testified against her own citizens, siding with a big corporation that fouled the air.

After years of bouncing between libertarian think tanks and states' rights groups, Norton may finally get the authority to implement her freewheeling ideas on a large, large scale. If approved by the full Senate, she'll oversee one third of the nation's land, parcels which together are bigger than many countries. In addition to jewels like the Grand Canyon, her domain will include such places as the Fire Island National Seashore and the Statue of Liberty in New York, along with the national treasures of Yellowstone and Yosemite.

"Don't commit cultural genocide against rural America. Honor our rights."

On the eve of the biggest energy crisis since the 1970s, Norton will hold the key to a bin of rich resources, containing much of the world's untapped oil and gas and minerals from coal to iron ore. She'll control access to thousands upon thousands of acres of grazing lands, military bases, Indian reservations, fisheries, and forests, not to mention abandoned military test zones. Through a maze of waterworks, Norton would have at her fingertips the lifeblood of the Western desert: water from the Colorado to the Snake to the Columbia. The enormous dams that make electricity and the long lines that carry it to market are all within the secretary's purview.

And what will she do with that power? Liberal environmentalists fret that she'll sell out the country's natural heritage. Right-wing libertarians know she will. "Bush is about opening more access to resources on federal lands," says Jerry Taylor, who runs the libertarian Cato Institute's division of public lands. "That's what Norton will be doing."

Norton was trained for the role as interior secretary in the saber-rattling libertarian wing of the Republican Party. She climbed the ladder from former interior chief James Watts's Mountain States Legal Foundation through the Hoover Institution to the Reagan administration. Back in Colorado, she immersed herself in pure libertarian politics at the Political Economy Research Center. Along the way, she became ensconced in the property-rights network, from the Sagebrush Rebellion of the Reagan era to today's militant Wise Use Movement and the rock-ribbed Defenders of Property Rights.

There's little cause for wonder that Norton was drawn to libertarian thinking, since it's by far the most resourceful and imaginative strand of political conservatism extant today. Libertarians take offense at being called proponents of anarchy, but when it comes to the public domain, their long-range goal is just that. They want to auction the preserves off to private parties, selling the national parks and wilderness areas to environmental groups, the grazing lands to ranchers, the subsurface oil and gas rights to mining and oil companies.

Rather than relying on regulation to protect the environment, the new administration would like to let big business police its own. The arrival of Norton spells "huge emphasis on using incentive to achieve environmental objectives," says libertarian guru John Baden. "More reliance on market. Expect subsidies that foster development reduced or eliminated."

Libertarians believe their ideas are catching on; they've slowly been injecting market forces into management of the public domain by offering a carrot and not a stick. As an example, they cite a privately funded compensation fund for Western ranchers who lose cattle when wolves are reintroduced into national parks. Since its beginning in 1987, the fund has paid out more than $109 million to 111 ranchers around Yellowstone, according to Bush adviser Terry Anderson and libertarian colleague Don Leal, authors of Free Market Environmentalism.

Their book is the closest thing to a road map of where the new administration is headed. Leal, in an interview, says Bush is an admirer of market-based solutions, like setting up a brokerage in fishing rights along both coasts. These kinds of arrangements already exist for other resources, such as water, for which some federal rights have been passed along to local governments, which in turn can barter the supply to parched cities.

In the end, the Bush presidency will fall short of libertarian ideals, but it will continue the incremental march toward the privatization of the public domain. "I know Bush," says Leal. "He's not going to sell off land. That's just pie in the sky. But we are going to get more accountability."

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