Interior secretaries — the good, the bad and the ugly


Yes, alert readers, I do know that radium is not spelled “radiam.” I committed a lapsus calami, a slip of the pen. I failed to heed the advice of Stephen King, who advised writers to “edit, edit, and edit again” anything they write prior to submitting it. I failed to catch the lapsus, as did the editor, Fred Woods.

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Following are my opinions on a person destined to be our new Secretary of the Interior and two who have served in the past. I may be jumping the gun on the new one, because she has not yet been confirmed (as of March 10), but I’m reasonably confident she soon will be.

Her name is Sally Jewell, and I believe she will be a good one. Here are some of the reasons for my optimism. She has been CEO of one of the largest outdoor recreational equipment businesses in the country, Recreational Equipment, Inc. She is an outdoor enthusiast herself, and enjoys sailing and hiking. She recently went mountain climbing with her son. She has served as vice-chair of the National Parks Association.

She has a varied background, having been involved in banking and has worked for an oil company. Some conservationists are skeptics, because, according to The Daily Telegraph, she has or recently had tens of thousands of dollars in shares of oil, coal, and cigarette companies, including Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company. At a senate hearing she promised to divest from oil and other controversial businesses, but failed to mention Peabody Energy.

Some senators worry that Jewell’s involvement with environmental groups would cause her to take an unbalanced stand on fossil fuels, but other Senators believe her business experience will help her achieve a “balanced approach” to solving energy problems (Los Angeles Times). Finally, Jewell is wealthy and would not be tempted to base her decisions on under-the-table contributions from Big Mules.

The Interior Department is responsible for managing most federal lands and natural resources. The National Park Service, Office of Surface Mining, Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Geological Survey are within the department’s purview, as is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). BLM lands comprise 264 million acres of public lands. Management of these lands is a source of continuing controversy. Conservationists favor protecting them from what they consider overexploitation, whereas the “drill-baby-drill” and “graze-baby-graze” folks contend that environmental protections in place are too restrictive.

So much for the good, now for the bad. The only woman to serve as Interior Secretary was Gale A. Norton. She was appointed by Pres. G.W. Bush and served from 2001 until 2006. Reportedly, her philosophical proclivities were influenced by the writings of Ayn Rand, and she was considered Bush’s leading advocate of expanding oil and gas drilling and supporting other industrial interests in the West. She resigned following the Interior Department’s inspector general’s investigation of dealings between one of her former deputies and convicted felon Jack Abramoff.

Norton had been an understudy of the notorious James G. Watt, who was appointed as Interior Secretary in 1981 by then Pres. Reagan. Watt’s tenure in that capacity was ugly, and he was intensely disliked by conservationists and most of the conscientious employees who served under his direction. One of his critics was Greg Westone, who described him as “one of the two most intensely controversial and anti-environmental presidential appointees in recent history.” He considered himself to be a Dispensationalist Christian, and was alleged to have said, “Jesus will come when the last tree falls.”

Watt resigned under pressure shortly after making a speech defending his hiring practices saying, “One of my panels consists of a black, a woman, two Jews, and a cripple.” In the 1990s, he partnered with Grover Norquist to form the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, and accepted $200,000 from his friend Jack Abramoff. Gale Norton served as the organization’s chief legal advisor.

In 1995, Watt was indicted by a federal grand jury on 25 counts of felony perjury, but in a plea-bargain deal he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to five years probation, fined $5,000, and ordered to perform 500 hours of community service.

Much more could be written about the Watt-Norton-Norquist unholy alliance, but I’ve about run out of space.


Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.


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