The question goes to the fundamental role of the federal government as an environmental steward:
Should Americans place more trust in private industries to monitor their own smokestacks and waste pipes?
Or are even stronger federal regulations needed to protect the nation's air, water, and black-footed ferrets?
When Gale Norton appears at her congressional confirmation hearing today, these differences of ideology will loom large for George W. Bush's nominee for secretary of the Interior.
A central theme of the hearings will be whether her supposed "pro-business biases" would interfere with her environmental stewardship responsibilities. As Interior secretary, Ms. Norton would preside over half a dozen federal land-management agencies, from the National Park Service to the Bureau of Land Management, which collectively oversee nearly 500 million acres.
Not since the era of Interior Secretary James Watt, the controversial appointee of Ronald Reagan, has the environmental movement been more unified - and vocal - in opposing a would-be cabinet member.
Norton, in fact, is frequently compared to Mr. Watt. She began her legal career three decades ago with the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a Denver-based law firm founded by the former Interior secretary. Her recent support for opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling has fueled the comparisons and hardened resistance to her nomination.
No Watt clone
Yet Norton is not a carbon copy of Watt. In Colorado, she had a relatively controversy-free tenure as attorney general. She pressed for cleanup of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and the Rocky Flats nuclear facility where plutonium triggers were made.
She also, however, maintained close ties with the property-rights movement, proponents of the "Sagebrush Rebellion" that in the past have advocated divestiture of federal lands to state and private ownership. It is this stance that worries some environmentalists the most.
Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, for one, calls Norton "an extremist" on property-rights issues. Her supporters, however, argue her philosophy is simply rooted in a more common-sense approach to balancing economic interests and environmental protection.
One area this tension will play out in is how aggressive the federal government should be in protecting the lands of the West. In the past, Norton has acted as an adviser to conservative groups involved in lawsuits challenging the application of federal environmental strictures.
Worrisome to her detractors, too, is that she pushed for passage of a self-audit law that grants companies immunity from prosecution if they voluntarily report violations of environmental laws and take steps to correct them.
Like many conservative westerners, Norton has often expressed a distrust for management from Washington. She has promoted the maxim that the best government is the one that governs least. Fundamentally, she has argued that local people and local governments - not some federal agency - should have the biggest say with how public lands that lie in their backyards are managed.
"One reason we have federal authority [in the West] is because states don't have a good record of protecting the environment and resources," says Melinda Kassen, a staffer in Colorado with the environmental group Trout Unlimited.
Indeed, environmentalists say that giving the logging, mining, livestock, and oil industries leeway with how they operate on public land is akin to letting the fox guard the hen house. "Her record may be unclear but her constituency isn't," says Charles Wilkinson, a law professor at the University of Colorado and expert on public land policy in the West.
During the 1990s, Norton founded and served as chairwoman of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, which was heavily funded by mining and oil interests that logically would like to see her, as Interior secretary, open more federal land to development.
Where Bruce Babbitt's challenge these past eight years was not to alienate environmentalists who supported him, Norton's problem is the same but with business interests, says Don Barry, executive vice president of The Wilderness Society and a former Babbitt lieutenant at Interior. "Given Gale Norton's very conservative resume, the expectations of her from the right wing are sky high."
Others believe that the view of Norton as a stooge of timber, mining, and other corporate interests simply isn't true. Richard Stroup of the Political Economy Research Center, a libertarian think tank in Bozeman, Mont., says Norton "believes in the carrot rather than the stick approach" to regulating business.
He says Norton subscribes to the principle that in nations where free-enterprise is promoted and companies are allowed to prosper without interference from government, there is a corresponding increase in environmental quality and wealth among citizens.
Stance on tribal issues
One other area where Norton might bring changes - but far less controversial ones - is at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is also under Interior jurisdiction. In the wake of Colorado's settlement with the tobacco industry, Norton pushed to ensure that the tribal share of the proceeds went directly to tribal governments rather than be administered through state agencies. The gesture demonstrated her respect for tribal sovereignty and a desire to streamline government.
Allen Best contributed to this report from Colorado.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society