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The Libertarian at Interior
Scarlett Aims to Improve Cooperation Between Public, Private Sectors

By Ellen Nakashima

Published in The Washington Post on November 6, 2001.

Lynn Scarlett sometimes wore a flower in her hair, flirted with commune life and traveled to Algeria to interview Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver. To hear her friends tell it, Scarlett was a hippie. Over the years, however, her fierce belief in individualism and the entrepreneurial spirit have brought her into the libertarian fold. Her instincts are toward smaller government. And as assistant secretary for Policy, Management and Budget at the Interior Department, her aim is to improve cooperation between public and private sectors and between local, state and federal governments in land management.

But since the attacks of Sept. 11, the former president of Reason Foundation, a libertarian research and education organization, has had to redirect her energies.

In charge of coordinating security for Interior, she redeployed some of the agency's 4,000 law enforcement officers to Boston's Logan International Airport, where hijackers had boarded the two jets that later crashed into the World Trade Center. She sent others to train for the government's beefed-up sky marshal program and stepped up security patrols at Hoover Dam and other dams.

Scarlett, who is generally suspicious of the long reach of government, now finds herself part of a government that, in the wake of the attacks, is taking control in a big way. President Bush has created an Office of Homeland Security, for example, and is increasing federal oversight of security at airports; the Justice Department has won expanded powers to wiretap phones and conduct electronic surveillance.

Scarlett admits to some questioning over how far that role should go. "I, like, everyone out there, to varying degrees, [am] asking questions about how do we meet this counterterrorism challenge and the threat of terrorism," she said, choosing her words with care.

But, she adds, that she is pleased to see "how fully that discussion is being engaged. . . . I think there's a strong awareness of achieving the right balance there."

Since Sept. 11, she has toured the disaster scene in New York, discovering that the Park Service manages 26,000 acres in the area, including Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and Federal Hall, a massive marble building two blocks from the World Trade Center that served as the nation's original seat of government and that became a refuge for people fleeing the crumbling towers. She has asked for more money for enhanced security and foundation work at Federal Hall.

But Scarlett is also getting back to the work she came to do. She has resumed development of an inventory of the department's grant programs that might fit in with what Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton calls "The Four C's" -- "conservation through communication, cooperation and consultation." The idea is to give people incentives to come up with creative solutions to problems, whether through technology or new forms of cooperation with farmers, local governments and private groups.

"So perhaps," Scarlett said, "instead of saying to the farmer, 'You're in violation of regulation such and such,' if we had more agricultural extension services, more technical assistance programs, we could say, 'You've got a riparian management problem, an erosion problem. What do you know about your landscape? How might we do it better?' "

While environmental activists say there is nothing wrong with consulting those closest to the land in achieving preservation goals, they fear that Scarlett's approach gives too much leeway to these local people to determine the goals.

"We ought to take advantage of local knowledge to safeguard national lands," said Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director. "But we ought to set the goal nationally." When Bush began filling out his administration, critics included Scarlett among those nominees deemed either environmentally unfriendly or too cozy to industry because of her libertarian leaning against federal intervention.

Her views are distinctly free-market, and, like many libertarians, her positions are not necessarily conservative. She opposes the death penalty. She favors the decriminalization of marijuana. She believes abortion ought to be a private decision. "She is very unusual in the free-market community in sharing a core of the values that environmentalists hold," said Bill Shireman, a consultant who makes a living resolving conflicts between corporations and environmental activists.

Shireman bonded with Scarlett over one of his pet causes -- the California bottle recycling bill, which took effect in 1987. Scarlett did not support the legislation, but after it passed, she worked with Shireman and others to improve the law. Then the director of Reason Foundation's policy research division, Scarlett's view was that recycling cannot be justified environmentally unless it leads to a net reduction in environmental harm, Shireman recalled. It is still not clear, for example, that recycling plastics is good for the environment because it takes so many resources -- including petroleum -- to recycle the material, he said.

There were other signs, Shireman said, that he was not dealing with a rock-ribbed conservative. He remembers her saying once, she had been "more of a socialist, more of a traditional leftist. I think that's an interesting history to have, to change over time. It shows that you're intellectually driven, and driven for solutions."

"She told me she was a hippie," Shireman said. Scarlett, who emanates authority and sobriety with her sensible suits, turtleneck sweaters and efficiency of manner, downplays reports of her hippiedom. "I don't know that I would have ever used that phrase," she said. "By the same token, I was living in an era, the late '60s, which was an era of flower children. . . . I might have put a flower or two in my hair." And her libertarian colleagues discount the leftist influences that have shaped her. "There's a big difference between the New Left and a more libertarian view of the world," said her former colleague at Reason magazine, editor-at-large Virginia Postrel. "She's interested in individual freedom and also in decentralized solutions of various sorts.

But there's a difference between what she would say today and what we associate with the New Left, where it tends to be very coercive." Coercive or not, leftist activists say there is need to safeguard the environment and public resources from corporations concerned more about profit. Mainstream environmentalists are still quite skeptical of Scarlett, who wrote in Reason in 1996: "One of the advantages of 'privatizing' resource and land-use decisions through various property rights arrangements is that these arrangements reduce the need for consensus. Goals, such as wilderness preservation, can be pursued through private land purchases that, unlike public preservation activities, do not require majority voter approval." Pope noted that Scarlett has acknowledged that government regulation is sometimes the best compromise, such as in situations where industry polluters on their own would not act in the best environmental interest. But, he said, Scarlett is not at the Environmental Protection Agency, where she "would be good on global warming policy," but rather at an agency whose mission is to protect and preserve the land.

"The American people want to own their own parks," he said. "They don't want the Sierra Club to own the Grand Canyon. They don't want Walt Disney to own the Grand Canyon." Norton, who met Scarlett at a seminar on the Ninth Amendment a decade ago, became intrigued with her work in "new environmentalism," a concept that holds that while the Old Environmentalism brought some good, it had a downside: It focused on punishment, rather than incentives. The old environmentalism raised consciousness, Scarlett said. It yielded results. But it generated high conflict. Scarlett said she would rather focus on how to get the job done.

A bird-watcher since she was 5, the Mount Lebanon, Pa., native has canoed hundreds of miles of rivers in northern Canada and was a champion swimmer as an adolescent. She is still in top shape, she said: "I have muscles like you wouldn't believe! I could lift the couch."

As a young woman, she was deeply moved by Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," the book that galvanized a generation to safeguard the environment. In 1969, when an oil spill sullied the Southern California coast, she was among the many people down at the beach, cleaning tar off the besotted birds. It was yucky, she recalled. But there was a task to address, a problem to solve, she recalled. It was time to "get busy" helping to clean up.

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