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Cutting environmental safeguards Norton's leaving won't slow Congress and Bush from gutting key laws

Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, it turns out, is leaving at least one stone unturned. After five years in office presiding over the erosion of a range of environmental protections, she leaves this month as Congress threatens to gut the Endangered Species Act.

Norton's resignation probably will change little. The Bush administration is sure to seek a like-minded replacement. Easing of regulations and restrictions, and encouraging energy and land exploitation, are likely to remain the administration's regressive priorities.

Norton helped write an energy policy that encouraged oil and gas drilling in the West and the Gulf of Mexico. She was a key proponent of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Environmental groups have been especially critical of her department's selective use of scientific data, including revisions of Fish & Wildlife Service findings on the impacts of oil development in the Arctic.

Norton's championing of resource development over habitat and wilderness protections added irony to her resignation letter, in which she described the thrill of releasing a bald eagle and said she was "looking forward to enjoying the wide-open spaces again."

She had better hurry. This month, Congress threatens to take a similar track, laboring to produce a bill that would erode the Endangered Species Act. It is a highly successful barricade on the road to extinction for species whose habitats were threatened by development and other land uses, including logging, drilling and mining. Because of its shield, there have been slow climbs back to healthy populations for wild turkeys, some types of deer and bears, falcons and a range of plants. And, of course, the once-endangered American bald eagle.

After 33 years, the act could need tweaking on its initial spirit, which was intended to keep the diversity of life from disappearing piecemeal from the earth at the hand of man. But the "reforms" proposed in Congress have included not just loosening habitat protections, but such things as letting corporations claim federal compensation for profits they might have made had they been allowed unfettered land exploitation. That money would come out of the federal budgets for conservation and national parks. People, habitats and species all lose.

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