THE MUTE BUTTON 

When Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton delivered the UTSA commencement address on May 11, we learned that her favorite hobby is hiking.

After lacing up her L.L. Bean boots and donning her safari hat, where does Norton go to find solace in nature?

Traipsing through gashes carved by mining companies in the West Virginia mountains? Roughing it in sandy ruts dug by semi-trucks on the Padre Island National Seashore? Surfing on oil slicks secreted by energy corporations in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

It is not surprising that UTSA President Richard Romo invited Norton to wax nostalgic to the Colleges of Sciences and Human Development: Romo's ties to the Bush administration earned him a presidential appointment to an advisory board on black colleges and universities. And in the early 1970s, Norton's uncle served in UTSA's upper brass during the school's fledgling years.

Nor was it astonishing that Norton used the opportunity of a captive audience to advance her environmental policy, which puts property rights über alles. Except for the protesters segregated a mile from the Convocation Center, and off UTSA property, no one expressed disdain over Norton's corrosive environmental record. A man waiting for her speech to begin turned to his family and remarked, "In Abilene, we never see ladies protesting the drilling and the sea turtles."

Those half-dozen demonstrators (which did include several "ladies"), were among the few who dared to criticize Norton's policies, and were summarily quashed by UTSA's campaign to stifle free speech. Ann Morris, a member of the Sierra Club, which is suing Norton for allowing BNP Petroleum to drill for gas and oil off the coast of Padre Island, called UTSA on May 10 and asked for permission to go on campus to protest Norton's address. Morris was told no, so she and other demonstrators opted to stand on the curbs at the UTSA entrance roads, about a mile from where Norton was to give her speech.

"I had a length of my foot on the grass and a woman came up to me and said, 'You know that you have no permission to be here,'" recalled Morris, who was stationed at the south entrance off UTSA Boulevard. "And so I stepped on the curb."

"You can't even stand on the curb," the UTSA police officer reportedly told Morris. "You will have to go on the other side of the street."

"I'm just on the curb, please ... "

"If you don't move, we will arrest you."

Morris moved.

Meanwhile, at the north entrance Geert Aerts encountered similar hassles: "All of us were told by UTSA police that we could not stand on 'their' side of the entrance roads." Aerts said campus police threatened to arrest him for criminal trespass, so he posted himself on the 1604 service road. Officers again approached Aerts and reportedly warned him that "everything south of the traffic lights is UTSA property and I couldn't be there." So Aerts moved again, this time to a traffic island beneath the 1604 overpass.

Even if the protesters had received permission to demonstrate on campus, they wouldn't have been allowed to wander freely. Instead, all protests are restricted to two "designated free speech zones": one near the Sombrilla, near the center of campus, and another on the patio next to the University Center. Neither is close to the Convocation Center. Furthermore, protesters cannot be private citizens, they must be sponsored by a campus organization to set up in the zones.

"We believe in free speech," UTSA officials emphasized, adding "No person or event was the cause of this policy," which they said was set by the board of regents. "It has been around a long time."

It is predictable that UTSA immunized Norton's presentation from criticism, considering the Bush administration's intolerance for dissent, which it has deemed as unpatriotic. But Norton opponents had not only the Constitutional right, but also good reason to shake their fists at her commencement address. Norton, whom the Senate confirmed in January 2001 by a 75-24 vote, has continued her dirty legacy that she started as Colorado Attorney General and has carried to the Bush cabinet. Now, among the most powerful policymakers in America, Norton has neutered environmental regulations governing clean air, water, and land.

Yet to the Class of 2002, Norton extolled the "new environmentalism": "Environmental protection and economic growth are seen as mutually exclusive options. Rather than dictate how to use land, we need to talk to see how both can be addressed.

"During the era of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring `a ground-breaking book that revealed the devastating human and ecological effects of DDT`, the Cuyahoga River was on fire and smokestacks belched pollution. Then, we focused on punishment and law enforcement for compliance. Now we have the Clean Air and Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. We need to use the carrot and not the stick."

Norton neglected to note that she is sticking it to citizens by rolling back several tenets of the Clean Air Act. Under her leadership, power plants and refineries can increase pollution due to gaping loopholes in the law. Smokestacks still belch pollution: The American Lung Association's 2002 State of the Air report shows that an additional 875,000 Americans (bringing the total to more than 100 million) live in counties — including Bexar — that received an F rating for ozone levels.

Norton also omitted details of her opposition to the Endangered Species Act. In Colorado, she sued to block protections for many species such as the lynx. As Interior Secretary, her pro-corporate policies have threatened many wildlife, including Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtles, which nest on Padre Island.

While Norton commented that the "new world" challenge is to "explore new and alternative energy sources," the oil-friendly Bush administration, in its support for drilling in the Arctic, and even spending money from the alternative energy fund to print copies of the heft National Energy Report, has not demonstrated that solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass sources are a priority.

When Norton visits Texas, she's "coming to a home away from home." Considering that Texas' dreary environmental record is nearly as atrocious as hers, Norton probably feels quite cozy among the urban smog, polluted colonias, and poisoned water. When Norton saw the UTSA site in 1973 for the first time, she told the graduates, "there was a lot of vacant land, a big hole in the ground, and a big dream."

There is little vacant land left around UTSA now. In the last 30 years, UTSA has been part of the City's explosive suburban growth to the north, much of it atop the Recharge Zone. Soon there will be another big hole in the ground: A large swath of trees — which some environmentalists suspect harbor endangered species — that lines UTSA Boulevard has been designated for a new mall, even though Fiesta, a huge shopping center, is only a-mile-and-a-half away.

Perhaps this loss of greenspace is as Norton opined, one of the "growing challenges to live with nature." Sadly, UTSA is ensuring that no one can complain about it.

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