Farewell, Gale Norton

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

SHE WAS, according to President Bush, "a strong advocate for the wise use and protection of our nation's natural resources." The Natural Resources Defense Council, by contrast, said she had led "an unprecedented assault on the very lands the Interior Department is charged to protect." The pro-business Partnership for the West said her tenure had been "very strong." The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance gave her "two thumbs down."

Given that range of assessments, the truest thing that can be said about Gale A. Norton, who resigned last week as interior secretary -- a job that gave her oversight of national parks, federal lands, and the Indian tribes, oil producers and hikers who use them -- is that she did not manage to bridge the deep gap between the mining and drilling companies that view America's federal lands as an untapped source of mineral resources and the environmentalists who see them as pristine wilderness that must be preserved for future generations. During her tenure these bitterly opposed constituencies fought about whether roads could be built across empty swaths of Utah; whether there could be oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; whether snowmobiles could be driven across national parkland in the winter; and whether logging companies would have easier access to federal forests.

On none of these issues did the secretary successfully broker a compromise. Down the line, she chose to support the business argument. She gave out more permits to drill and mine on federal lands, effectively placed more federal lands in line for development, and came down, not unexpectedly, on the side of the snowmobilers. Not all of these decisions were wrong: In a meeting with Post editors last year, she made a persuasive case for the fact that not all federal lands are scenic, pristine or otherwise environmentally significant -- and there is a great national need for oil and gas. Nevertheless, she made little attempt to create a broader constituency for her policies, little attempt to see both sides of the picture. She leaves behind even more bitterness and division than she inherited.

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