“Good Riddance” to Gale Norton, but The Problems at Interior Remain

No one who closely watches the Interior Department foresees any dramatic shifts in policy once Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne replaces Gale Norton as secretary later this spring. As a former senator, Kempthorne is expected to breeze through the confirmation process, scheduled to begin in early May. But now is a good time to take stock of what’s been happening at Interior and what Kempthorne’s appointment might augur for the federal department charged with managing 507 million acres of federally owned land, negotiating Washington’s relationship with 562 Indian tribes, overseeing about 30 percent of the energy produced domestically, and protecting endangered or threatened species.

Norton’s resignation on March 10 qualified as a minor surprise, as she is one of only four members left from President Bush’s original Cabinet. Norton claimed her resignation had everything to do with fatigue, and nothing to do with the Jack Abramoff scandal. What seems more likely, however, is that her fatigue increased immeasurably when she looked ahead to what the next two years are likely to bring. Washington might soon be a less hospitable place for the secretary who presided over the worst influence-peddling scandal to hit the Interior Department since Teapot Dome in 1922.

Although Norton herself has not been tied directly to any of Jack Abramoff’s schemes and corruption, the picture that has emerged so far suggests a lobbyist who was hard-wired into Norton’s department, who gained access to privileged information that he could use for the benefit of his tribal clients seeking gaming licenses.

It has yet to be explained how Abramoff, who in 2000 observed that “money from government is [like] blood in the water for sharks,” managed to get on the transition team for the Interior Department, unless it was simply payback for his large donations to the 2000 Bush campaign. The prospect of watching her former deputy, J. Steven Griles, testifying in court, now that Abramoff is cooperating with federal prosecutors, could not have been very appealing to Norton. The first woman to serve as Interior secretary said she looked forward “to getting back to the West” when she explained to reporters her decision to resign.

GIVING AWAY THE STORE—Norton’s other legacy, of course, is her record of failing to protect the nation’s wildlife and undeveloped lands. On every contested issue, she came down squarely on the side of business and expanded commercial exploitation of untapped natural resources. Norton labeled her approach “cooperative conservation,” but private interests were the only ones shown any real solicitude by her Interior Department.

Although the Senate blocked her proposal to permit drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for every acre protected in Alaska there has been an exponential increase in Lower 48 acreage opened to oil, gas and mining interests, particularly in the Rocky Mountains. Drilling permits issued by Interior’s Bureau of Land Management rose by 70 percent during Norton’s first three years in office, in line with the 2001 recommendations of Vice President Cheney’s energy task force. Yellowstone National Park is once again safe for polluting snowmobiles, and Norton leaves office having placed once protected federal lands in the queue for development—a secret deal in 2003 opened up 2.6 million acres in Utah alone.
OILY ERRORS—During Norton’s tenure, the Interior Department continued to be a poor steward of the public’s equity in oil and gas leases. Although some of the worst bungling antedated her appointment, as the New York Times recently revealed, after 2001 the Interior Department failed to conduct a “robust” audit to gauge the true cost of the oil and gas companies’ relief from royalty payments and whether the program offering the relief was justified.

Norton even sweetened the program, expanding royalty incentives to gas producers deep-drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, a 2004 decision that will cost the Treasury an estimated $1.9 billion. “It’s hard to make a case for royalty relief, especially at these [record] high prices,” Jack Overstreet, an independent oilman, told the Times in a fit of candor. “But the oil industry is like the farm lobby and will have its hand out at every opportunity.” Norton essentially defended the raid on public coffers, articulating the administration’s opposition to proposed legislation that would press energy companies to pay full royalties when prices spike, regardless of the terms written into their leases.

A BITTER LEGACY—Perhaps the most telling aspect of Norton’s tenure has been Interior’s effort to weaken the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). Known as the “pit bull of environmental law” because of its exacting provisions aimed at preventing species extinction, ESA has long been the prime target of timber, real estate and mining interests. ESA invariably represents the litmus test on wildlife issues for any administration, and as Bush’s “good soldier” in the Interior Department, Norton thought up some novel ways to eviscerate the statute, since Republican efforts at openly amending ESA are currently stalemated in Congress.

In a move that has attracted little media attention, in late 2003 and early 2004 Norton issued new regulations that, if implemented, would seriously undermine ESA. A critical component of the current statute has been to force all federal agencies to consult with Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service or its National Marine Fisheries Service whenever an agency is contemplating a program that might harm a threatened species or its habitat.

But Norton’s new regulations would allow key agencies, ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency to the U.S. Forest Service, to bypass the two Interior entities with decades of expertise in species preservation. By simply declaring that it had engaged in a process of “self-consultation,” the EPA could approve a new pesticide and the Forest Service could allow a logging project. If allowed to stand, these regulations will “subvert the entire [ESA] legislation” and “set a very dangerous precedent,” says Eric Glitzenstein, an attorney involved in one of two federal lawsuits aimed at blocking the new regulations. Little wonder that when Norton announced her resignation, Defenders of Wildlife, one of the most active environmental groups, issued a brusque two-word press release: “Good riddance.”

HIGH-PROFILE SUCCESSOR—Because the top post at Interior traditionally goes to a Westerner, President Bush’s nomination of Dirk Kempthorne was not unexpected. If nothing else, Kempthorne will likely have a higher public profile than Norton, who gave every impression of preferring to work behind the scenes rather than in the public spotlight. The 54-year-old Kempthorne is the most charismatic politician to come from Idaho in recent memory, with a Clintonesque ability to make voters believe that the few seconds he spends with them constitute the most important moment of his day.
Kempthorne also appears to be a peripatetic politician with a large itch for higher office that needs scratching. He served as mayor of Boise for seven years before running for the U.S. Senate in 1992, then gave up a safe seat after only one term to run for governor. Kempthorne may have his eye on the GOP’s 2008 vice-presidential nomination, which might be within reach unless Arizona Senator John McCain wins the top spot.

During his six years in the Senate, Kempthorne was chairman of the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, and Water, and pushed for many pro-business policies that Norton would later implement, including opening up more public lands and coastal areas to extractive industries, and weakening the ESA (indeed, Kempthorne tried to do by law what Norton has attempted via regulation).

In at least one respect, Kempthorne was a relative moderate. When firebrand Republicans led by Newt Gingrich took over the House in 1995, there was talk of dismantling about 20 major environmental laws that protect the nation’s health and natural resources. Kempthorne proved to be something of a restraining influence; his 1996 revision of the Safe Drinking Water Act, for example, quickly won bipartisan support. Still, Kempthorne’s overall Senate record earned him a meager 1 percent ranking from the League of Conservation Voters, and throughout his career the biggest contributors to his campaigns have been the very industries with the greatest stake in Interior Department decisions.

There is probably not a dime’s worth of philosophical or operational difference between Norton and Kempthorne, though the Idaho governor may prove a more personable salesman of administration policy. Like Norton, Kempthorne is an advocate of giving localities and states greater authority, on the grounds that “those who live closest to the land know how to manage it best,” as President Bush put it when announcing Kempthorne’s selection. That sounds reasonable, until one considers why federal laws protecting the environment from pollution and development had to be passed in the first place. These are national problems that cannot be solved piecemeal, particularly when states—eager to create jobs—are forever competing in a “race to the bottom.”

Among the thorniest issues Kempthorne will have to confront immediately is the large shortfall in operating funds for the National Park Service. The Bush administration is proposing to cut $101 million from the parks’ $2 billion budget. On top of that, the National Parks have a maintenance backlog of at least $4.5 billion, according to two separate federal reports. If Kempthorne’s track record as governor is any guide, he is likely to propose bridging the gap by creeping commercialization of the nation’s “crown jewels.” That would be similar to what he did in Idaho when he needed to raise funds for a new governor’s mansion in 2005. The most generous donors were promised the opportunity to have rooms and gardens named after them.

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