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Why Interior is such a difficult agency to lead

Secretary Norton, who resigned Friday, favored wider public-land use, dismaying preservationists.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 13, 2006



ASHLAND, ORE.

Geographically speaking, no member of the Bush administration has had more impact on or responsibility for the United States than Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

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Secretary Norton, who announced her resignation Friday, oversaw more than 500 million acres of national parks and wilderness, water reclamation projects, most energy development, Indian tribal issues, endangered-species protection, and tracts of arid Western rangeland where cattle roam and the deer and the antelope play.

The position is a challenging one that often embroils its occupants in controversy - and is likely to continue to do so.

Typically run by a native Westerner, the Interior Department in recent years has swung between an emphasis on environmental protection and a philosophy of developing public lands - called "wise use" or "market-based environmentalism."

To his critics, James Watt, President Ronald Reagan's lightning-rod Interior secretary, represented the latter approach at its most extreme. During the Clinton years, Bruce Babbitt - former head of the pro-environment League of Conservation Voters - fought to close old mines and dams, tried to charge users more for cattle grazing and mineral mining, and expanded national monuments and protections for other federal landscape.

Ms. Norton's five-year tenure, moving Interior back to a more development-oriented agenda, gets mixed reviews.

"Gale Norton brought integrity, honesty, and a cheerful spirit to the tough job of Interior secretary," says William Perry Pendley, president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation in Lakewood, Colo. The foundation was started by Mr. Watt, and Norton worked there before serving eight years as Colorado attorney general.

National Association of Manufacturers president John Engler lauds Norton for her "dedicated efforts" to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska and the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) to oil and gas exploration and development.

While Congress continues to spar over energy development in ANWR and the OCS, Norton managed to significantly increase oil and gas leases in the Rocky Mountain region, to the point where some conservative ranchers joined with environmentalists in criticizing the expansion. Recent years also have seen retired National Park Service officials speaking out against what they see as the commercialization of some of the nation's "crown jewels." Readmitting snowmobiles to Yellowstone National Park has been the most controversial issue.

Most environmentalists saw Norton as "the fox guarding the hen house," as Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope put it. But others, including Steve McCormick, president of The Nature Conservancy, lauded Norton's push for new federal investments in private land conservation.

Norton's legacy - and the future of the Interior Department - is overshadowed by the possibility of taint from the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

Mr. Abramoff apparently tried to influence government decisions on Indian gambling casinos through two sources close to Norton: J. Steven Griles, a former Interior deputy, and Italia Federici, head of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA), whose causes include oil drilling in ANWR and property-rights protections. Norton founded CREA before she joined the Bush administration.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee, chaired by Arizona Republican John McCain, has gathered evidence showing that Abramoff had his tribal clients donate some $500,000 to CREA with the expectation that this would help them gain access to the Interior Department. Ms. Federici and Norton deny any undue influence.

Like Mr. Babbitt before her, Norton never saw an end to the longstanding legal battle involving billions of dollars in trust funds set up in 1887 to compensate native Americans for traditional tribal lands taken by the federal government - a situation some judges have termed gross mismanagement.

Resolving the Indian trust fund snarl may be the next Interior secretary's biggest challenge. Among those mentioned as possible successors to Norton is Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R).

Business and property-rights groups are pressuring the White House to name a replacement who will act as vigorously on their behalf as Norton did. "Anything less ... may generate opposition to the nomination from the president's own supporters," says Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association.

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