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Our Column

En español
The Fox in Her Henhouse
By Javier Sierra

Once upon a time there was an old lady who was crying inconsolably in a corner after she learned that the tyrant who had ruled her city with an iron fist had died. Her neighbors took to the streets to celebrate, and one man, upon noticing the old lady, asked her, "Why are you crying? Don't you know the tyrant has died?" And the old lady answered, "I am not crying for the one who's gone, but for the one who's coming."

This old fable could very well be applied to another succession- the one that is now taking place within the Bush administration. Secretary of Interior Gale Norton has resigned, leaving a distressing legacy of favors to corporate interests at the cost of the natural treasures that belong to us all.

During her five years running the Department of the Interior -where she was supposed to be the guardian of 500 million acres of public lands- Norton gave preferential treatment to oil, mine and timber interests, opening hundreds of thousands of acres to industrial exploitation.

Norton -a former lobbyist and attorney for those interests- has been the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse. Instead of allowing the agencies under her jurisdiction to protect our natural treasures, she did her best to keep them from fulfilling their duties. She stubbornly supported opening our public lands and coasts to oil and gas drilling, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the few pristine ecosystems left in our hemisphere. Other Norton targets are the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, the Virginia coasts and the salmon fishing grounds in Bristol Bay, Alaska.

Whereas the United States consumes 24 percent of the world's oil production, under our feet are only 3% of the planet's reserves. We will never come out of this energy crisis -or as President Bush says, "oil addiction"- by drilling our children's natural legacy.

Norton and her friends in the Bush administration have refused to implement available, viable energy alternatives. For instance, Detroit already possesses the technology necessary to build cars and light trucks yielding at least 40 miles per gallon. In ten years, this alone would save us all the oil we import from the Middle East and could ever extract from the Arctic Refuge.

Norton's drilling obsession also contradicts the wishes of the majority of Americans, 70 percent of which consider themselves environmentalists. According to a recent study conducted in California, the state with the largest Latino population, healthy coasts are very important to Californians, especially Latinos.

The survey, conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, found that the conditions of the ocean and beaches are very important for 61 percent of all respondents- and 67 percent of Latinos specifically. Likewise, only 31 percent support more offshore drilling, but this number is even lower for Latinos, at 29 percent. Also, 50 percent believe coastal pollution is a big problem, whereas 58 percent of Latinos think that way.

This data could spell disaster for those candidates who support polluters or neglect Latino voters. 87 percent of the likely voters surveyed said the gubernatorial candidates' environmental position is important for them.

Speaking of voters, President Bush seems determined to ignore them. As Norton's successor, Bush has nominated former Idaho governor Dirk Kempthorne, who during his public life has consistently opposed protecting public health and public lands. As a state senator, he co-sponsored a bill to let polluters off the hook for dumping millions of tons of lead, zinc and other toxic metals into Idaho's rivers, leaving taxpayers with the cleanup bill.

Kempthorne has also opposed protecting 60 million acres of wild forests, has worked to weaken the Endangered Species Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, and supports drilling for oil in the Arctic Refuge. It's no wonder the League of Conservation Voters, in its report on the environmental performance of elected officials, gave him a one percent rating.

Who knows? With time, Dirk Kempthorne could make us miss Gale Norton.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. The Sierra Club is America's oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.


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