Monitor Breakfast

Selected quotations from a Monitor breakfast with Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

Gale Norton is the nation's 48th secretary of the interior. Secretary Norton comes to the job after serving as attorney general of Colorado. Prior to that, she served in Washington as associate solicitor of the Interior Department and as deputy secretary of agriculture. She has also been senior attorney for the Mountain States Legal Foundation. Her bachelor's and law degree are both from the University of Denver.

The secretary manages a sprawling department that operates in 2,400 locations and manages one fifth of the land in the US – some 507 million acres. It's a lightening rod for controversy given its widespread environmental and social impact.

On the use of fire in forest management:

"Fire is still a tool for us. This year we have let very few fires burn themselves out naturally just because it is so dry that you can't keep them under control. In more normal years, we let more fires burn naturally ... Fire is a natural part of the environment. The natural fires are much smaller and do much less damage to the forest. Once we restore thinner forests, then we can maintain those more easily using fire. So fire can again become a better tool for us if we get rid of the overly dense undergrowth that we have today."

On changes at the Interior Department since Sept. 11:

"We have become much more aware of visitor safety. We, at a number of our areas, have increased the screening of visitors going in. We are focusing more on that aspect. When you think of the 4th of July celebration on the Mall this year, security was a major concern for us. It is just something we are going to have to start factoring in. We are much more in contact with the law enforcement and intelligence agencies so that we would know about threats that might apply to our areas. And we take much more seriously the security of our infrastructure – dams are a major example of that. Our facilities are partly infrastructure things, like dams, and also working with companies that operate the oil and gas pipelines and offshore drilling facilities. Also we have the symbolic icons of the country–the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument. So for those we need to be very aware of threats that might come about because of the important things those mean to Americans."

On whether global warming is scientifically proven:

"There are some things the scientists view as being pretty well established. And some things that are not. The question of whether temperatures are rising I think is pretty well established. The question of how much that is caused by man as opposed to part of the continuing process of coming out of the ice age or natural fluctuations –there is less certainty about that. When you get into things like saying global warming is going to cause a particular climate factor, like global warming is going to cause a hurricane or more hurricanes to affect this area, there is certainly far less certainty as to those things."

On casino gambling at Bureau of Indian Affairs reservations:

"We are at a point where the terms of the National Indian Gaming commissioners have all expired. So we are replacing all the members of that commission. My overall approach is to see that gaming is conducted in a way that maintains credibility and honesty in those operations. There are certainly economic benefits that have come to the tribes through casino gaming. That is certainly endangered if that gaming becomes corrupt..."

On oil drilling close to national parks:

"It is a land management decision. There are areas where we would say 'No, it is not appropriate to have oil and gas development in this area'. There are an awful lot of situations where I have heard people say 'Oh gosh, this is really close to a park'. Well, you know, anywhere in Utah is arguably close to a park and so you have to take with a grain of salt exactly what the contention is."

On why national parks have had maintenance and funding problems:

"There are basically three things. One of those is that the way most of our projects are done and get funded is through congressional add-ons. Essentially a member of Congress says 'I want this done in my district,' and 'I want this visitor center in my area'. So instead of a good, comprehensive management program, we have this sort of management by crisis or management by who can get the most political attention.

So the second issue is we need to replace that with something that makes more sense. We have in place now a move toward businesslike management of the resources within our parks. We had not had a good way of across-the-board assessing the conditions of the parks and deciding how our resources ought to be allocated. Now we are putting in place a standardized system and doing assessments across the board at the parks. People are going out and looking consistently [at] how the needs in this park compare with the needs in this park. And what is our catalog of things that need to be done. Getting that kind of system in place so we can go in with documented needs and establish what needs to be done I think is going to be helpful.

And third, something that is in place as a demonstration project but that really makes sense and is part of the key of having the usage match the funds available to take care of the problems that people cause, is the fee program. Basically the fees for using the parks. We are used to paying the entrance fees at parks, but having that tied to the management of the parks is really something fairly new. [It] used to be you paid your fee to get in and that [money] went to the federal treasury and that was the end of it. Today, the law says on a demonstration basis that those funds go back to that particular park or the park system generally. That really gives a park superintendent the ability to say 'I need to have a new rest room here,' or 'I need to rehabilitate this trail without having to go to a member of Congress and get it onto the congressional list or without having to go through the whole parks service process'. It basically puts the resources where the people are using the resources.

We are committed to the $4.9 billion over 5 years [in funding for the national parks] ... that was basically to look at the backlog – routine maintenance activities. This was where the routine maintenance had not been done and it ended up being in a backlog. We are also putting in additional money for that routine maintenance so with those things we are in the ballpark on addressing that issue.

We have other areas besides just the parks and one of the things we would like to do is make people aware of those areas and of the parks that are less well-known. So our wildlife refuges welcome visitors–many of them do. ...So we accommodate more people at those areas. Our bureau of land management are often now providing active recreation and active public use. So part of it is educating people that there are lots of other places they can go besides just the few national parks that get the attention."

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