Features

A green Bushie

National | Interior Secretary-designate Gale Norton represents a new breed of environmentalism

Issue: "China: Caesar’s seminary," Jan. 27, 2001

Nothing makes green environmentalists turn redder with anger than telling them that big government is bad for the environment.

That's what former Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton has spent her career saying, and the left is seething over her nomination to head the Interior Department. "Gale Norton would be a natural disaster as Interior Secretary," said the Sierra Club's Carl Pope. "I think the Interior Department is going to take a sharp turn to the right with very dark storm clouds brewing on the horizon," added Jay Watson of the Wilderness Society.

Even the NAACP and the AFL-CIO are showing a sudden interest in the Interior Department and actively oppose Ms. Norton's nomination. Only Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft is more controversial among George W. Bush's Cabinet picks (see page 21). Unlike Mr. Ashcroft, Ms. Norton is pro-abortion, which raises deep questions about her basic beliefs and values. Her views on the specific subjects under Interior Department control, though, are what require careful analysis now.

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The Norton nomination threatens liberals' monopoly over the term environmentalist. It represents the political coming of age of free-market environmentalism-a movement whose ideas have been percolating in think tanks throughout the country over the past several years.

Free-market environmentalists believe that securing property rights is the key to conservation, because people have an interest in caring for and wisely using resources that belong to them. Governments, on the other hand, have proven to be bad stewards, they say.

Are Americans concerned about the wildfires that swept through the West last year? Free-market environmentalists argue that mismanagement and neglect of federal lands fanned those flames, while privately owned lands close by were healthy and productive.

Are we concerned about the Florida Everglades? Free-market environmentalists point out that federal subsidies for sugar growers encourage overproduction in that environmentally sensitive area.

Are we worried about endangered species? These conservationists say that private efforts have saved more species than the Endangered Species Act, which has succeeded only in harassing landowners. They say the ESA tempts some landowners to "shoot, shovel, and shut up" when they find an endangered species on their land, rather than risk losing rights to their property.

On these and other issues, free-market environmentalists believe Uncle Sam should take the plank out of his own eye before he looks for specks in the eyes of businesses and citizens. "First, do no harm," should be the government's green policy, says Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a leading free-market environmental think tank.

Ms. Norton is a child of this movement. She began her career as a lawyer with the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which is akin to a free-market ACLU, defending people and businesses against overzealous environmental regulators. Then she went to the conservative Hoover Institution, where she worked on free-market solutions to pollution. During the 1980s she worked in the Agriculture and Interior Departments of the Reagan administration. In 1991 she began two terms as attorney general of Colorado.

We won't see Ms. Norton demonizing loggers, miners, ranchers, and others who work the land in the West. Nor will we see Ms. Norton call for the government to gobble up ownership of more Western lands, as Bruce Babbitt, her predecessor, did. Worst of all for liberal environmentalists, she believes the federal government should compensate people when regulations reduce the value of their property, a practice that would be compatible with the Constitution's "takings clause."

Sadly, free-market environmentalists like Ms. Norton rarely understand the biblical principles that undergird or parallel such arguments. But many of their ideas are in line with biblical concepts, notably that God gave mankind dominion over the earth with orders to fill and subdue it, that developing creation's potential-for God's glory and the good of others-is part of being a good steward over it, and that property rights are important in this process.

Such thinking is a direct challenge to the environmental establishment, and liberals cannot tolerate that any more than they can tolerate Mr. Ashcroft's pro-life views. Free-market environmentalism may grow in influence over the next four years, but don't expect the old order to play nice with the new kids on the block.

Timothy Lamer
Timothy Lamer

Tim is managing editor of WORLD magazine.

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