Norton confirmation is boon for common-sense environmentalism

Published March 1, 2001

President George W. Bush made an outstanding choice when he selected Gale A. Norton to be Secretary of Interior. Norton is qualified, having served previously in the Interior Department and for eight years as the Attorney General of Colorado. She was elected Chair of the Environment Committee of the National Association of Attorneys General, demonstrating the high esteem of her fellow state attorneys general.

Who is extreme?

The left wing of the environmental movement opposed the Norton appointment because she threatens to expose their reliance on scare tactics, their disregard for private property and the Constitution, and their reliance on federal tax dollars to support their propaganda campaigns.

“Gale Norton,” according to a Web site hosted by a dozen environmental groups, “is an extremist who is out of touch with the views of the overwhelming majority of Americans.” But opinion polls indicate that groups such as the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club are extreme, while Norton’s views are entirely mainstream.

Only five registered voters out of one hundred rank environmental concerns as “the single most important problem facing the country,” according to a national poll conducted by the polling company in 1999. Environment ranked eighth, well behind crime/drugs, taxes, and education. In fact, more people ranked “President Clinton” the nation’s biggest problem (8 percent) than chose environment (5 percent).

The same poll revealed large majorities believe local or state governments do the best job addressing environmental problems, and landowners should be compensated when environmental regulations restrict the use of their land. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, the nonprofit group that commissioned the poll, concluded: “For most Americans, devolution, regulatory reform, and property rights are consistent with environmental protection.”

The wacky left

The Norton nomination exposes a growing schism within the national environmental movement. An increasingly radical left wing, funded by a small number of liberal foundations and tens of millions of dollars each year from government grants, will stop at nothing to shut down American manufacturing and ban all public access to public lands. Some of these groups were responsible for the violence during the WTO meeting in Seattle in November 1999 (see “Seattle riots shame environmental movement” Environment & Climate News, February 2000), and there can be little doubt their tactics have inspired those who are burning down resorts and new homes to protest “sprawl.”

Leaders of the environmental movement’s biggest and wealthiest organizations are now hopelessly out of touch with the American mainstream. They cling to a 1960s political philosophy while the rest of the movement has grown up and learned some new ideas: A Gallup poll released in November 2000 showed 65 percent of Americans say big government is the biggest threat to the future of the country.

The general public recognizes the environmental movement has been highjacked by professional liberal activists who would rather score points against “big business” than genuinely protect the environment.

New-era environmentalism

Gale Norton and her supporters are not “anti-environment.” They believe local communities and private property owners can, and should, be given the principal role in protecting natural resources. Their commitment to attaining a cleaner and safer environment matches or exceeds those of their liberal rivals.

The big difference is that Norton doesn’t claim that any theoretical threat to the environment, no matter how remote, justifies violating people’s legitimate rights or running to the federal government to create another massive and ineffective program.

Norton’s resumé reveals past or present affiliations with many of the organizations that make up the New Era Environmentalism movement. Organizations such as PERC (Political Economy Research Center), the Hoover Institution, and the Independence Institute are respected independent think tanks that have been making the case for a new brand of environmentalism based on sound science and respect for private property rights.

With Norton in Interior, we will be hearing much more about New Era Environmentalism in the coming years. For the past eight years, anti-market environmentalists got most of the media coverage, partly because their funding vastly exceeds that of more market-oriented organizations, and partly because they effectively dictated policy in the two Clinton-Gore administrations. But those days are finally coming to an end. In Norton, the great majority of environmentalists will finally have a voice in Washington.

Joseph Bast is president of The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Chicago, and founding publisher of Environment & Climate News.