& & by Ed Marston & & & &

Now that Gale Norton, the former attorney general of Colorado, has been nominated as Secretary of Interior, the four-year run of what is certain to be a fascinating play in the American West can begin.

The details of the script will be written on the fly, but the broad outline is clear. George W. Bush, elected President fair and square by five out of nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court, does not have much of a majority or a platform to work with.

Let's take his plan to reform Social Security by allowing us to invest some of our old-age money in the stock market. If Cisco and Lucent and Amazon rise from the dead, that plan might rise with them. For the moment, even market-oriented types are happy that stodgy government bureaucrats are watching over their FICA funds.

So Bush and VP-elect Richard Cheney, by inclination and elimination, are left with tax cuts, with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and with all the little ANWRs around the West. They will fight hard to drill their way out of this latest energy crisis, just as environmentalists will fight hard to stop them.

So long as gasoline prices remain below $2 a gallon, and the lights stay on sporadically, my money is on the environmentalists. We have become a very sophisticated public when it comes to natural resources. We showed that in our calm reaction to the fires that swept the West this summer. Long before ANWR oil can reach the pumps, the Bush recession and conservation will have floated us out of this energy shortage.

We also no longer reflexively choose to clear cut and drill and graze wherever possible, just as we no longer assume that the only good wolf is a dead wolf. The burden of proof lays with natural resource industries rather than with preservation and conservation.

But whichever way ANWR goes, it will be a warm-up for the real drama: How will the Republicans handle the reborn Department of Interior?

Before Bruce Babbitt's tenure as Secretary of the Interior, the Department of Interior and the Forest Service were the scenes of largely uncoordinated fights over the use of this land for mining, logging, dam building, recreation and the rest. The fights were uncoordinated because the nation lacked a coherent approach to the public lands. Until the 1970s, our official position was that all the lands not in national forests and parks and wildlife refuges were to be distributed to the public, first come, first served. In 1976, with the passage of the Federal Land Management Policy Act, the nation declared that the public lands would stay public.

In the early-1980s, President Ronald Reagan's Interior Secretary, James Watt, made a spectacular run at reversing this direction. Failing in his effort to sell off the remaining public lands, he tried to give away the coal and oil and grass and trees on those lands -- and largely failed there, too.

Babbitt, on the other hand, has forged a policy based on the many years of hard work put in by the environmental movement. He took sledgehammers to dams, attacked gold companies for using the 1872 Mining Law to fleece the public, released wolves into the northern Rockies and then, in the closing months of his tenure, created and expanded 13 national monuments (although Bush seeks to undo much of that, too).

When it made sense, Babbitt was also protective of rural economies. If ranching remains viable in eastern Oregon, it will be because of the Steens Mountain land protection law he forced that state's cattlemen, environmentalists and politicians to get behind. He has also been a tough-minded friend to the logging industry and to the land developers on the southern California coastal plain and in southern Utah.

He showed his friendship by helping to transform the Endangered Species Act from a law so powerful, it tended to push even some reasonable Westerners to the edge, to one that has given logging and other land-use industries a chance to reform their practices and thereby survive into the far future.

Now comes Norton, the first woman to seek to run Interior and a person with conservative views on private property and the need for the federal government to stop lording it over the states and local government. Norton is no Watt, however much some environmentalists will attempt to paint her with that brush. But she believes strongly in Western sovereignty, and undoubtedly sees the unilateral creation by the president of national monuments as anathema. Most important, it remains to be seen whether she will continue Babbitt's efforts to reform mining, ranching and logging.

Once the ANWR fight is over, Norton and Cheney will find themselves confronted by the reality Babbitt has created: a public lands policy based on the primacy of natural resource protection, modernization of land management agencies and modernization of natural resource industries willing to operate within an environmentalist framework.

Which way will they go? Let the drama begin.

& & & lt;i & Ed Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He is the publisher of High Country News, and lives in Paonia, Colo. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &

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