US Interior Secretary says government accepts Clinton monument protections

Interior Secretary Gale Norton has said that the Bush administration won't attempt to overturn any of President Clinton's designations of thousands of square miles of federal land as protected national monuments, and will minimise environmental damage to oil and gas exploration in an Arctic wildlife refuge.

In an interview with The Washington Post, published on 21 February, Norton said that the new administration, western lawmakers and private property owners will probably attempt to adjust the boundaries of the new national monuments and alter the rules governing commercial activities within them, but that there will be no governmental initiative to do so. “I certainly disapprove of the process by which those monuments were generally created . . . [but] I have not yet heard any calls to repeal any of the monument designations,” Norton reportedly said.

With minimal consultation with western lawmakers and business leaders, Clinton established 19 national monuments covering some 8,000 square miles (20,000 sq km) and expanded three others, including Idaho’s Craters of the Moon which was increased by more than ten times its original size.

All bar one were designated within the final year of Clinton’s presidency. In a separate move, the Republican Mike Simpson of Idaho is drafting a bill that would require congressional approval of any monument larger than 50,000 acres.

While Norton’s spokesman, Clifford May, said the administration had not announced a final decision, the approach outlined by Norton is certain to disappoint some western governors, lawmakers and property owners who view Clinton’s free use of the 1906 Antiquities Act to make monument designations as a symbol of federal intrusion into their way of life.

Coming only a month after President Bush took office vowing to review Clinton’s actions), Norton’s words suggest that the administration recognises that a battle with environmentalists may be unwise as the White House seeks to push through its tax cut plan, and that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to undo many of the orders, says the newspaper. This is because of the cumbersome and lengthy procedures for reversing an executive order as well as the prevailing mood on Capitol Hill, where a strong pro-environment coalition would oppose any major changes.

“We’re now cleaning up after the fact and doing things that should have been done before the monuments were designated,” Norton said, criticising Clinton’s haste. “The monument designations were more show than substance. We now have to provide the substance.” She also hinted that she would allow existing mining operations to continue on National Monument land. “We may need to manage those plans in a way that takes into account current uses and that better tailors the monuments for local needs and circumstances,” Norton said. She also gave her full support to the landowners right to rule over their lands. “Those who own property are the ones who often understand the habitat on the property and the uses of the property. . . . If the federal government approaches issues by punishing property owners, then it loses an important tool.”

Norton was confirmed by the Senate last month after overcoming strong criticism of her record by environmental groups and even some Republican congressmen, who say that she is always on the side of the logging and oil industries. However, Norton said that environmental groups had distorted her record and had falsely claimed that she would have trouble enforcing federal environmental and mining laws because she had challenged their constitutionality in court cases and in legal writings.

She also said that she would carefully weigh environmental concerns against initiatives to increase domestic energy supplies, particularly the administration’s proposal for oil and gas exploration in the Belgium-sized Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, which has attracted widespread criticism.

A day earlier, Norton argued before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that oil and gas exploration in the refuge could be done with minimal threat to the environment. Exploration and development could be limited to winter, allowing the use of ice airstrips, ice roads and ice platforms that would protect the ground. “I have been told production there would impact only about 2,000 acres in an area well over the size of many of our states,” she said.

However, the Canadian government, environmentalists and tribal groups are not convinced by the argument and argue that supplies will only be available in several years, not aiding the California power crisis which exploration proponents claim it will prevent.

The Sierra Club, one of the US’s premier environmental groups, says that evidence from energy experts and scientists proves that the amount of oil estimated to be in the refuge is just a fraction of US yearly consumption and California, which generates less than 1% of its electricity from oil, is facing a generation shortage, not an oil shortage. Opening the refuge, even according to some oil producers, will have no effect on oil prices because the supply is too small and Persian Gulf oil too cheap, the NGO says.

Another environmental group, the Alaska Conservation Foundation, has said that about one in four jobs in Alaska and almost $2.6 billion in annual income are dependent on a clean environment and healthy ecosystem. The NGO said about 55,000 jobs, including those in commercial and sport fishing, tourism, recreation and hunting, depended on an unspoilt environment, more than twice those in the petroleum, mining and construction industries.

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