Interior secretary willfully ignored complexities of the Klamath Basin'The West is being reminded what happens when a rabid member of the so-called property rights movement is appointed to lead the U.S. Interior Department.

Property rights is a misnomer as it is applied by Interior Secretary Gale Norton and her fellow hard-liners from the Mountain States Legal Foundation. The MSLF, where Norton worked for four years, is dedicated to preserving federal entitlement programs for mining companies and agribusiness in the form of royalty-free exploitation of federal lands and heavily subsidized water and livestock grazing privileges.

As The Nation reported on Jan. 29, 2001, "As Colorado's Attorney General from 1991 to 1998 Norton pushed programs of voluntary compliance for industrial polluters and opposed government (and voter) initiatives to counter sprawl.

She has been an active advocate for "property rights," the idea that government should compensate developers when environmental laws and regulations limit their profits, while also fighting hard to protect agribusiness access to cheap federal water."

A long-time admirer and accomplice of former Reagan administration Interior Secretary James Watt, Norton shares Watt's reactionary views of a West designed for rapacious exploitation. Their positions would be comfortably at peace with the criminal machinations of petty western bureaucrats during the Grant administration of the 1860s and '70s.

Just as in the 1870s, some in the rural West still regard any water left in a stream as water wasted. The concept of preserving in-stream flows for fish, wildlife and recreation is positively painful to Norton and her ilk.

The past two years are rife with examples of this philosophy, one of which made the news last week when a report by Oregon State University scientists leaked out, roundly blasting a federal panel appointed by Norton to rubber-stamp regressive water management strategies in the Klamath Basin.

The OSU scientists found many flaws in the Norton committee's findings and methods, which were incorporated in a 2001 report criticizing the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for holding back water for salmon rather than releasing it for irrigation. The Norton committee's erroneous findings were trumpeted by environmental opponents as justification for weakening endangered species laws.

But a close look at the report by the OSU researchers showed that the Norton appointees systematically ignored complexities in the Klamath ecosystem, dismissing out of hand any dissenting views. In other cases, it got simple facts wrong - in one instance, months after the Norton panel began its work, its chairman based an argument on a species that doesn't exist in the Klamath Basin.

Using this hack job as justification, this summer the Bureau of Reclamation cut back on water for salmon, which then suffered a massive die-off due to low water. The winners? Ranchers and farmers growing inexpensive commodities in an arid place inappropriate for agriculture, using water they wouldn't have without a massive infusion of tax dollars. The losers? The salmon and the taxpaying public, who pay a fortune for fish recovery only to have our money wasted.

Essentially, Norton is allowing our environmental house to burn down so that farmers can spray our water on cheap crops in a desert.

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