Interior Secretary Nominee Pushed States’ Rights During Heyday of Secessionist Groups


WASHINGTON, JANUARY 11—Now that environmental groups have dredged up a 1996 pro-Confederacy speech by interior secretary-designate Gale Norton, much of the resulting scrutiny has focused on the question of whether she endorsed the slavery of the Old South. That scrutiny misses the point. For Norton’s remarks were tied less to the virtues of antebellum plantations than to a handful of powerful and threatening states’ rights movements trying to wrest control of Western land from the federal government. “(W)e lost too much,” she told the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank in Denver.

Norton, then attorney general of Colorado, made her remarks at a time when the County and Wise Use movements were openly plotting ways to take back control from Washington, D.C. “We lost the idea that the states were to stand against the federal government gaining too much power over our lives,” she told the audience.

The County forces were centered around Catron County, New Mexico, where officials openly discussed kicking the feds off surrounding public-domain lands and setting up an independent republic. One county official dreamed of having 50 different republics, loosely linked together as, he argued, the founding fathers had desired. Catron County passed its own regulations that contradicted or modified federal law and launched bitter arguments and confrontation against agents of the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and other federal departments. Elsewhere in southern New Mexico, environmentalists were threatened and pipe bombs were hidden in cattle guard crossings to blow up federal agents passing by.

In Nevada, secessionists came near to armed conflict with Forest Service personnel and bombed one Forest Service office. In Oregon, another band of secessionists phoned death threats to Bureau of Land Management agents. In one case a caller promised to drop the federal employee’s 12-year-old child down a well. So frightened were federal employees by these threats that they sent their families to safety in Los Angeles.

In the early stages, the Wise Use and County movements had ties to the right-wing militias, and at one conference, urged members to get in touch with the Militia of Montana, the group which supported the Freeman’s movement to break away from the United States and set up independent republics. The Wise Users later rejected the militias and verbally attacked them.

Once part of the Wise Use movement, these Westerners—often ranchers—were angry at slowly tightening environmental restrictions that promised to hinder and even block their use of public domain lands for their cattle. Ranchers rent thousands of acres of range lands for their cattle herds with few environmental restrictions and at low prices. They want the federal government to get off the land and return it to the states, where agribusiness enjoys greater influence. In addition, the conservative Republican legislators who make this argument often are fronting for oil and gas explorers and the big mining combines that have invaded Nevada to re-mine gold deposits using modern technology, and for oil and gas explorers.