For nearly 30 years, a "Sagebrush Rebellion" has rumbled in the American West as ranchers, miners, loggers, and the recreation industry clashed with environmentalists and government regulators over hundreds of millions of acres of federal land.
At stake have been such endangered species as wolves and grizzly bears, as well as oil, timber, and other resources. All the while, a growing population of urban retirees, wealthy vacationers, and high-tech workers have brought new values to a region long steeped in a tradition of independence and sun-burnt grit.
Now, with Gale Norton's nomination for secretary of the Interior, that fight begins a new chapter - one that is likely to be just as contentious, and may signal a return to an earlier, more conservative approach toward federal land policy.
Ms. Norton brings a varied background and outlook to the job of nation's landlord: Eight years' experience in law enforcement as attorney general of Colorado, where she took Uncle Sam to court over cleanup of nuclear and chemical weapons facilities and led the effort by states to wring large payments out of the tobacco industry. A reputation as a social moderate on issues like abortion and gay rights. But also a clearly conservative bent on property rights, as much freedom from regulation as possible for businesses, and the importance of state and local control in setting policy.
Norton's attitude toward Western lands and environmental protection was formed in her early days out of law school. She worked for James Watt at the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a Denver-based law center "dedicated to individual liberty, the right to own and use property, limited government, and the free enterprise system."
Mr. Watt went on to become a highly controversial Interior secretary in the Reagan administration. Norton also went to Washington, working on natural resource issues in the Interior and Agriculture Departments. Among other things, she pushed for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
Property-rights groups, oil and gas associations, and farm groups are delighted with her nomination. They see the Interior post as crucial to their cause, especially in western states where the federal government controls most of the territory. (The Interior Department is responsible for 436 million acres of America's public lands - nearly 20 percent of all the land surface in the US. This includes about a third of the natural gas, a third of the coal, and a quarter of the oil consumed by Americans. It also oversees the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Geological Survey, and the Fish and Wildlife Service.)
Defenders of Property Rights, a lobby and litigation group in Washington which asserts that "property rights are civil rights," declared Norton's nomination an "enormous victory."
As he finishes out his term, President Clinton has set strict protection measures for vast areas of public lands. This has rankled many Westerners, Norton among them.
"The West was concerned about those decisions, in large part because there was no consultation with the people whose lives were most affected by land withdrawals by the Clinton administration," she said when introduced by President-elect George W. Bush.
Not surprisingly, environmentalists are concerned about the nomination."We are coming off the best year for land and wildlife conservation in 20 years, and it would be a colossal mistake to try to reverse this momentum," says Wilderness Society President William Meadows. "The last thing we need is a remake of the James Watt era."
But those who have workedwith her in the past say Norton looks for consensus, cooperation, and the most efficient way to solve environmental problems.
"I think the president-elect made a very, very good choice," said Norman Brownstein, a Democrat who heads the law firm where Norton has worked since her two terms as Colorado's attorney general. "The best attribute she has is a consensus builder," he told the Denver Post.
As Colorado's chief law enforcement official, Norton encouraged companies to conduct "environmental self-audits." If they found a pollution problem, state officials worked with them to clean it up rather than immediately prosecuting them for violating the law. Norton can be expected to bring this attitude to the Interior Department.
One highly contentious issue that could come up soon is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Mr. Bush's friends and former associates in the oil industry are eager to drill there. Environmentalists are urging Mr. Clinton to designate ANWR's coastal plain as a national monument, putting it off-limits to oil exploration.
"It is vital to do so now," former President Jimmy Carter wrote in a recent column in The New York Times. "The Arctic is threatened as never before."
If confirmed, Norton will become the first woman to head the Interior Department.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society