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Norton Resigns After Weakening Land Protection

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release March 21, 2006
http://www.btlonline.org

Norton Resigns from Interior Dept. Post After Weakening Many Protections for Public Lands

Interview with Annie Strickler, Sierra Club spokeswoman, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced last week that she's stepping down after five years in office. Norton came out of the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion of conservative Republican property rights activists in the West, who advocated opening public lands for private use and development. When she announced her departure, she said she was anxious to return to the private sector, but many critics say she ran Interior as if she was still working in the private sector.

As a result of Norton's policies, public lands are now more open to gas and oil drilling, logging and subject to weakened environmental protections. In her first three years, the number of drilling permits issued by the Bureau of Land Management rose 70 percent. Although blocked by Congress, Norton persistently pushed for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Alaska's North Slope to oil drilling. She also succeeded in derailing bipartisan efforts to limit the use of environmentally destructive snowmobiles in national parks.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Annie Strickler, spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, who discusses Norton's legacy, the timing of her departure, and expectations for her replacement.

ANNIE STRICKLER: As far as the legacy of Gale Norton and the devastation she’s left in her wake, I think the best place to look is our western public lands. The Bureau of Land Management, which is under the Interior Dept., manages a significant amount of federal property across the West. And those are the places where we’ve seen oil and gas drilling become the primary purpose of land managers under Gale Norton’s tenure. It used to be a very multiple use idea that drove public lands management -- you know, it was recreation; it was resource extraction; it was wildlife habitat conservation. That changed very much to promoting just the extractive industries. Where wildlife biologists for the BLM used to be out there checking habitat and finding out how wildlife was doing on these federal lands, those folks were actually pulled off those jobs and tasked with expediting energy permits and oil and gas drilling permits. So you’ve seen this huge boom in oil and gas drilling on western public lands at the expense of

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, President Bush has finally declared that the U.S. is addicted to oil, but he’s focused more on the need to not depend on foreign oil, so it makes some kind of sense to increase drilling for gas and oil in the U.S., no?

ANNIE STRICKLER: Well, I think the point that President Bush missed in his State of the Union address is that it’s not just we’re addicted to foreign oil, we’re addicted to oil – and you don’t kick the oil habit by going and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or drilling off our coasts. You kick the habit by making cars go farther on a gallon of gas, by investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency. These are all things that are going to help wean us off fossil fuel, which is the true addiction here, and the true problem, both in terms of global warming, and just our energy consumption. The U.S. uses 25 percent of the world’s oil, and we sit on less than 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves, so we are not going to be able to drill our way to energy independence. The president sat there and said we are addicted to oil and we need to do something about it, and a week later, he turned around and said that as part of his federal budget, we should drill in the Arctic Refuge. And that was a po

BETWEEN THE LINES: Did she ever go there?

ANNIE STRICKLER: She did, she made a big show. This is interesting…when Gale Norton went to the Arctic Refuge she also went to Prudhoe Bay, which is directly to the west, and it’s where most of the oil from Alaska’s North Slope comes right now. It’s actually such a large industrial complex that it’s actually visible from space. And it’s a place that Gale Norton and others have always pointed to and said, “You know, the oil companies cleaned up their act. They can do this in a sensitive way. We won’t harm the caribou. We won’t harm the wildlife. We won’t harm the Arctic Refuge at all.” And there was an oil spill in Prudhoe Bay about two weeks ago that’s turned out to be the biggest oil spill in the history of the North Slope oil production. So I think that proves Gale Norton and everybody else wrong who was out there saying they can drill for oil in the Arctic Refuge in an environmentally sensitive way. It’s just not possible.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Annie Strickler, what about the timing of her departure? Even though most Cabinet officials don’t stay through two entire terms, there’s been talk about her leaving under a cloud related to the Jack Abramoff scandal. Her deputy, Steven Griles, has left already, but he was kind of a poster boy for someone who was supposed to be protecting the public interest and was doing the opposite. Do you think anything might come of this connection?

ANNIE STRICKLER: It’s entirely possible, but in all honesty, it is not uncommon for Cabinet members to start departing in the middle or the end of a president’s second term. So, I don’t think the timing is necessarily all that surprising. She needs to get back to private life -- even though if her private life is representing mining and timber companies, she never really left it when she came to the administration. But that aside, there are some serious ethics concerns and questions dealing with Jack Abramoff and corruption in Congress that are circling around the Department of the Interior, and they stemmed specifically from when Gale Norton was in charge of the department. Steven Griles, who’s already departed as you mentioned, was undersecretary at Department of Interior, and both his name and Gale Norton’s name are circulating with their potential ties to Jack Abramoff.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Are you hopeful that Gale Norton’s successor will be more environment-friendly, or do you think the Interior Department could even go from the frying pan into the fire, so to speak?

ANNIE STRICKLER: Well, I think it’s both. We’re fully aware that the Bush administration isn’t really planning on changing its direction as far as conservation policies go. So, even though Gale Norton will be leaving the department, we don’t really expect to have her replacement be anyone whose policies would be friendly towards conservation and wildlife and wildlands protection. We don’t really have too many high hopes for who will be her replacement. Contact the group at (202) 548-6587 or visit their website at www.sierraclub.org.

********

Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 40 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending March 24, 2006. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.


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