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Vote Lifts Conservative Land Groups

Published: January 31, 2001

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Gale A. Norton's confirmation today as secretary of the interior by the Senate, by a comfortable 75-to-24 margin, can also be seen as a victory for several conservative environmental groups with which Ms. Norton has been connected in her career.

The groups, which include the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the Political Economy Research Center, the Defenders of Property Rights and the Coalition of Republican Environmental Advocates, have played an increasingly important role in the battles over Western land use and other environmental issues. Some have been pressing for the rights of property owners against the federal government in response to what they view as overly cumbersome federal environmental regulations and aggressive moves to protect Western land. Others have pressed for a free-market approach to environmentalism, arguing that market forces should determine the proper uses of federal lands.

In recent years, these groups have become a counterweight to the larger and better-financed liberal environmental organizations, like the Sierra Club, that opposed Ms. Norton's nomination. They have also received money from Eastern social conservatives and Western business interests, public records show.

Some involved with these groups emphasize that Ms. Norton, a onetime member of the Libertarian Party and the former Republican attorney general of Colorado, will not automatically favor their positions as interior secretary.

''I know when she takes on a new role, all bets are off,'' said Nancie Marzulla, president of the Defenders of Property Rights, a group that defends property owners in disputes with the federal government. ''If I have a case to take before her, I expect she will probably grill me harder than other people.''

Until her appointment, Ms. Norton served on the group's board of advisers and previously worked with Ms. Marzulla at the Mountain States Legal Foundation, based in Denver.

But others in the conservative environmental movement are optimistic that Ms. Norton will promote free-market environmental ideas.

''Gale Norton's nomination gives the Republican Party a chance to embrace these ideas,'' said Jane Shaw, a senior associate at the Political Economy Research Center, in Bozeman, Mont.

Critics of Ms. Norton, however, have attacked her positions on land use and private property and view the groups with which she has been affiliated as antienvironmental.

''Her whole life has been devoted to restraining federal authority and making it easier for extractive industries to do their business,'' Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, an environmental organization in Washington that opposed Ms. Norton's nomination, contended.

''The pedigree for these think tanks and law firms,'' Mr. Cook said, referring to the ones with which Ms. Norton has been connected, ''has at every turn been to oppose environmental regulations.''

Financing for several of the groups with which Ms. Norton has worked has come from Richard Mellon Scaife, a figure involved in many of the attacks on former President Bill Clinton. The heir to a Pittsburgh family's fortune, Mr. Scaife has donated money to conservative land-use groups. The Sarah Scaife Foundation, which lists Mr. Scaife as its chairman, provided a total of about $200,000 in 1999 to groups with which Ms. Norton has had ties.

Another prominent conservative family, the Coors of Colorado, has also provided consistent backing for several conservative Western land-use groups through a foundation, records show. In 1999, the Castle Rock Foundation, a Coors foundation, provided about $100,000 to groups with which Ms. Norton has been affiliated, records show.

Oil, mining and timber interests -- particularly small and independent Western operators -- have also pitched in, each with contributions of a few thousand dollars. The financial records suggest that on one of the crucial environmental issues faced by Mr. Clinton and now by President Bush -- the debate over the federal control of public land -- Western and Eastern conservatives have found common ground.

One of the most prominent groups with which Ms. Norton has been connected is the Mountain States Legal Foundation, where she worked for about four years after law school. James Watt, whose tenure as interior secretary in the Reagan administration was controversial, was Ms. Norton's mentor there. The foundation handles litigation on cases relating to property rights and federal land management in the West.

The Sarah Scaife Foundation gave $25,000 to Mountain States in 1999, records show, although William Perry Pendley, the president and chief legal officer of Mountain States, said he did not know whether the Scaife foundation was still a donor. Mr. Pendley also emphasized that Mountain States, which received more than $2.3 million in total contributions in 1999, has thousands of individual donors, and relies heavily on small ranchers, timber operators and independent oil and gas producers.

The Sarah Scaife Foundation has also given money to other land-use groups, including the Political Economy Research Center. In 1999, the foundation gave $177,000 to the center, the foundation's records show. Ms. Norton has done research at the center, and she remains close to its executive director, Terry Anderson, who served on the Bush-Cheney transition team on Interior Department issues.

The Castle Rock Foundation, established with the Coors fortune, has also contributed to land-use groups with which Ms. Norton has been affiliated, including the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the Political Economy Research Center and the Defenders of Property Rights.

Castle Rock gave $35,000 to Mountain States in 1999, and $75,000 in 2000, as well as $40,000 to the Political Economy Research Center. It also gave $25,000 to the Defenders of Property Rights in 1999.

Mountain States and other land-use groups have also been financed by mining, oil and timber interests. The legal foundation listed modest donations in 1999 of $5,000 from mining giant Phelps Dodge Corporation, $6,000 from Idaho Forest Industries Inc. and $8,000 from the Louisiana Pacific Corporation. It also received donations from a variety of groups representing contractors and ranchers.

In 1997, Ms. Norton also helped create what is now the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy to change the Republicans' image on environmental issues, but less is known about the group's finances. The group held a Washington fund-raiser in 1998, raising $100,000, according to The Washington Post. Italia Federici, a former aide to Ms. Norton who now runs the group, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

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