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Bush's Interior choice makes property rights paramount

By H. JOSEF HEBERT Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Gale Norton, President-elect Bush's choice to head the Interior Department, once suggested that government recognize property owners' ``right to pollute'' and that they be compensated for losses when forced to protect the environment.

Norton's staunch support of property rights and ties to industry has prompted opposition from environmentalists, who argue she is ill-suited to head the agency charged with stewardship of 500 million acres of federal land, rescuing endangered species and managing the nation's parks.

After serving from 1991 to 1999 as Colorado's attorney general, Norton has been in private law practice in Colorado. She is viewed widely as intelligent and personable, with a willingness to seek out compromise, but has demonstrated an overriding belief that the less federal involvement in people's lives the better.

Over the years she has urged a broad interpretation of the ``taking'' of property by the government, advocating that landowners be paid for losses incurred through government regulations that limit use of their land to protect wetlands or endangered species.

Linking environmental protection to compensation has been a flash point for environmentalists. The Clinton administration has argued that compensation requirements would chill environmental enforcement since government payments could become enormous.

Recognizing such a potential, Norton told a 1989 law symposium, ``I view that as something positive.''

Then a senior fellow at the conservative Pacific Research Institute, Norton said compensation ``provides fairness to the person who is harmed by ... government action'' and causes bureaucrats to examine what effect their regulations will have on their budget.

Another approach, she argued, was to assume a ``reasonable right to use our property. ... We might even go so far as to recognize a homesteading right to pollute or make noise in an area.'' The remarks were later published by a conservative Harvard law journal.

``Norton's absolutist views on property rights and her hostility to environmental protection places her far outside the mainstream of even conservative legal scholarship,'' said Douglas Kendell, an attorney for Community Rights Counsel, a Washington-based environmental advocacy law firm.

Nevertheless, her views have won her strong support from industry advocates, land rights groups and most GOP conservatives. They call her approach to land stewardship and free-market environmentalism a welcome change from what they view as heavy-handed dictates from Washington in the Clinton years.

``She will bring a balanced approach ... to multiple use management of federal public lands,'' said Laura Skaer, executive director of the Northwest Mining Association, a trade group based in Spokane, Wash.

A protege of James Watt, the controversial Interior secretary in the Reagan administration, Norton over the years has been a frequent and outspoken supporter of more local, state and private involvement in crafting the nation's environmental programs.

``She believes the laws of the United States apply to departments of the federal government as well,'' said former Sen. Malcolm Wallop, a Wyoming Republican who now heads Frontiers of Freedom, a conservative advocacy group heavily involved in Western land issues.

With an ally on property rights at Interior, Republicans in Congress are likely to revive the debate over compensation in connection with wetlands and endangered species legislation, environmentalists fear.

``You're going to see a convergence of the perfect storm on property rights,'' predicts Donald Barry, an executive vice president of the Wilderness Society and former assistant secretary for fish and wildlife in the Clinton administration.

But in Norton, don't expect another Watt, who once barred the Beach Boys from performing at the Fourth of July festivities on the Mall. ``Watt was very much in your face,'' Barry said. ``She's going to be pleasant. She's going to be polite.''

It was Watt who in 1979 hired Norton, then a young attorney just out of the University of Denver, at the Mountain States Legal Foundation, an advocacy group that fought the legal battles of the ``Sagebrush'' rebellion against Washington bureaucrats. The foundation has filed numerous lawsuits against Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's land management policies over the past eight years.

As Colorado's attorney general, Norton also often clashed with Washington over automobile inspections to cut air pollution and over a Colorado law that allowed companies to escape sanctions if they voluntarily reported pollution problems and fixed them.

``This is a battle where we are still very much in the trenches,'' she declared in a 1996 speech. She berated Washington for threatening the state ``because we had the audacity to adopt something in the environmental area that we in Colorado think makes sense, but the federal government doesn't agree.''

In the same speech before the Independence Institute, a Denver-based free-market think tank, she compared the struggles between states and Washington to the Cold War.

``Just as free markets triumphed over communism,'' Norton said, ``we are in a time ... when we can be part of the intellectual battle that shift power from Washington back to states and local communities.''

(PROFILE (CAT:Legal;) (CAT:Philanthropy;) (SRC:AP; ST:US;) )

AP-NY-01-09-01 0045EST

Copyright 2000
The Associated Press All Rights Reserved.
The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.
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