Hoover Daily Report

The Environment Wins with Norton

Monday, March 5, 2001

Before Gale Norton’s confirmation hearing began, the “saynotonorton” web site was buzzing, the Washington Post carried a full-page ad sponsored by environmental groups blasting Norton, and Greenpeace protesters hung a banner at the Department of Interior reading “Our Land, Not Oil Land.” It looked as though Norton might be in trouble.

Despite this blitz, the environmentalists didn’t get their blood and Norton sailed through the Senate on a 75–24 affirmative vote.

Why did the environmentalists lose? First, Ms. Norton proved not to be “Watt in a skirt” (referring to President Reagan’s secretary of Interior) but rather a charming, reasonable person capable of collaborating with all stakeholders in Interior affairs.

Perhaps more important, she explained how she could be a “compassionate conservative” and a “passionate conservationist.” Her practical environmentalism exposed the radical rhetoric of the environmental groups. They say no to exploring for oil in the nineteen-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, while Norton points out that exploration would only involve 2,000 acres and then only when the tundra is covered with snow. They urged the Clinton administration to lock up nearly six million acres in national monuments and fifty-eight million acres in roadless areas without any input from state and local governments or citizens, while she wants full involvement of the people directly affected.

Although the environmentalists lost, the environment will win if the new administration pursues a theme of pragmatic environmentalism. Here are a few suggestions: allow ranchers to sell their grazing permits to environmental groups on a willing buyer-willing seller basis (the Grand Canyon Trust has tried this on federal lands in southern Utah but has been thwarted by Interior policies); expand the ability for national parks to raise revenues from user fees and to reinvest them where they are collected (Yellowstone is already using fees to generate millions for fixing its decaying infrastructure); reward private landowners for improving endangered species habitat (one environmental group currently compensates ranchers who lose livestock to wolves, another is leasing water to increase stream flows for endangered salmon and steelhead); and establish transferable fishing quotas to give fishers an incentive to reduce overfishing (this approach has proved effective in Alaska’s halibut fishery and in New Zealand and Australia).

Writing in the 1930s, Aldo Leopold, the environmentalists’ icon, said that “conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.” President Bush and Secretary Norton understand the wisdom of this statement.

In a May 1999 meeting with policy analysts including Norton, then-Governor Bush said, “When I leave office, the air and water will be cleaner, and the land will be better cared for. Your job is to tell me how to make that happen.” If the Bush administration uses market approaches and devolves some policy to state and local governments, he will be the environmental president.