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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- You may have missed it, but Interior Secretary Gale Norton resigned just before the weekend.

I had an inkling something good was happening when temperatures warmed, winter snow melted, and I strolled around the lawn, looking at the beautiful new buds on the stem-tips of mature oak, cherry, maple, birch, dogwood, apple, poplar and hickory trees. The trees somehow appeared contented and peaceful, with limbs dipping and swaying gracefully in the gentle breeze in a certain harmony of movement.

I have concluded the trees were happily messaging: We'll be safer now.

There have been some doozies who ran the Department of the Interior through the years, but Norton was arguably the worst of all time. Her benighted management was a threat to every tree, rock, animal, fish, wildflower, mountain, lake, river and piece of dirt in the entire country.

Interior is a relatively low-profile federal agency, and with short-sighted and profit-hungry media moguls slicing staffs and resources at the behest of Wall Street, coverage of Norton and her persistent assaults on our wildlife and environment has fallen off in recent years -- even though her department and her decisions affect our daily lives.

The Department of the Interior is vastly crucial in how our children will interpret America.

Few Americans realized the scope of her power. Norton, essentially, had control over one-fifth of the land in the United States. She set policy for how 500 million acres in the United States will be managed.

The first woman to guide Interior in its 157-year history, Norton, 52, had more than 70,000 employees and an annual budget of $11 billion. She ran 388 national parks and 545 wildlife refuges. She was responsible for the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

She was one of President George W. Bush's first appointments when he took office in 2001. Typically, he praised her record lavishly and called her a "strong advocate for the wise use and protection of our nation's natural resources." This is a bit like calling Willie Sutton the foremost protector of our country's banks.

Norton orchestrated a mammoth expansion in oil and natural gas drilling, opening huge areas of public wild lands to such exploration, especially in the Rocky Mountain states. In just her first three years, the number of drilling permits issued by the Bureau of Land Management rose 70 percent.

Norton vociferously and constantly pushed for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Alaska's North Slope to oil drilling. Only Congress stopped her, time and again. Norton never met a logger she didn't like. She enabled farm interests to draw more water from northwest rivers at the expense of the hard-pressed Chinook salmon. She even blocked bipartisan efforts to control the use of noisy and environmentally damaging snowmobiles in pristine national parks.

As the National Resources Defense Council -- a leading environmental protection group -- put it so bluntly: "Norton's resignation ends five years of an unprecedented assault on the very lands the Interior Department is charged to protect. During her tenure, Norton initiated a barrage of special interest favors at the expense of the public and our natural heritage."

The NRDC was very specific when considering Norton's tenure, accusing the Interior Secretary in a press statement of blatant federal hanky-panky in pursuit of her ends:

"She did not hesitate to alter scientific findings that did not support her case. ... She substantially rewrote biological findings from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concerning the impact of oil development (in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) before delivering them to Congress. Norton also consistently misrepresented the facts about the issue in speeches and newspaper columns."

According to NRDC land program director Sharon Buccino, Norton "is responsible for the destruction of public wildlands and key wildlife habitat. Her goal was to give away as many of our publicly owned resources as she could to the energy, timber and mining industries, and by that measure, she was very successful."

Norton says she will return to "the private sector." Norton's record, observes Buccino, "suggests she has been working for private special interests all along."

As Washington writer Freddie Mooche concludes on axcessnews.com, Norton "has done more in the past five years to alter the landscape of the rural West than any other person."

The Interior Secretary was also unpopular with American Indians. A long-running lawsuit is still going on in which Indian plaintiffs claim the Interior Department under her management grossly mismanaged trust funds supposedly set aside to compensate Native Americans for land use. A judge has already directed her Interior Department to admit information provided the Indians about lost royalties on private-sector earnings from their lands may be "unreliable."

And while no aspersions have been cast upon Norton's honesty in the current affair of indicted uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- accused of stealing millions from American Indian tribes who hired him to pressure the Interior Department for favorable decisions on Indian casinos -- the subject is bound to come up in news reports in the remaining few weeks before she officially returns to private life in Denver.

You may put me in the camp of the Defenders of Wildlife, another environmental group, which reacted succinctly to Norton's planned departure with two words: "Good riddance."

On a Different Disturbing Subject: Here's another thing that constantly worries me about modern life.

The English language, in current usage, is becoming incomprehensible. Much of it stems from the inability of certain users to accept life and reality as they are. There seems to be a modern trend of relentlessly seeking to soften the impact of messages, usually with gibberish and meaningless gobbledygook. We no longer call anything by its real name. This tinkering with words is a ridiculous and harmful pursuit, and I'm not the only one who's noticing.

The excellent columnist John Leo, in recent trenchant observations on the Web site townhall.com -- as repeated in the fine magazine "The Week" -- cataloged a few examples.

Instead of employing the widely understandable word "looting" when it occurred after Hurricane Katrina, politically correct municipal officials in New Orleans began to substitute instead "the appropriation of nonessential items from businesses." My, how convenient. Sounds like freedom-minded hippies in the '70s, when they claimed to be "liberating" a candy bar or two from a convenience store.

Contemplating the use of quarantine, should the bird flu hit, as is the federal government? Better conform to federal usage, then. Quarantine, you see, has negative connotations from previous deadly epidemics in which sick people were confined to their homes. Say instead "sheltering in place." No, there's a vast difference between voluntary and involuntary.

The Bush administration is not exempt, of course. The federal response to accusations of torture at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere -- whether it was justified or not -- routinely started to refer to the practice as "enhanced interrogation." Torturing the English language in such a way is unjustifiable.

Professors are no longer supposed to say a student is failing. Instead, the student is experiencing "deferred success." And probably failing English.

If the student is suspended, it takes three words instead of one to describe the practice: "mandatory discontinued attendance."

The recent spate of layoffs (a deliberately softening synonym itself) at major plants has spawned another idiocy. Instead of being fired, one is now "deinstalled." And here I thought that's what happened to a faulty muffler. Instead of job counseling, a fired person now gets to take advantage of "a career alternative enhancement program."

Thank you, John Leo, for making me aware of yet more ill-considered developments in modern life, and for ruining my day -- er, make that for "mitigating personal risibility attitudes."

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 14 2006