Norton calls it quits

    Interior Secretary Gale Norton resigned Friday after five years of
    guiding the Bush administration’s initiative to open government lands
    in the West to more oil and gas drilling, logging, grazing and
    commercial recreation.

    Norton, the first woman to lead the Interior Department in its
    157-year history, told President Bush in a letter she intends to leave
    at the end of March, saying she hoped to eventually return to the
    mountains of the West.

    “Now I feel it is time for me to leave this mountain you gave me to
    climb, catch my breath, then set my sights on new goals to achieve in
    the private sector,” she said in the two-page resignation letter.

    She leaves at a time when a major lobbying scandal involving Indian
    gaming licenses that required her consent looms over her agency, but
    there has never been any suggestion of wrongdoing on her part.

    Norton is the first member of Bush’s Cabinet to leave in well over a
    year _ when there was a substantial makeover in agency chiefs
    immediately following the president’s 2004 re-election to a second term.

    A day shy of her 52nd birthday, Norton emphasized in her resignation
    letter to Bush and in her remarks to reporters that her reasons for
    leaving were entirely personal. She said she hadn’t done any
    job-searching, adding she wanted to spend more time with her husband,
    John, and take time for recreational pursuits like skiing.

    “This is really a question of accomplishing the goals that I set out
    do here and wanting to return to having a private life again,” she said.

    In her letter to Bush, she recalled releasing into the wild an
    injured bald eagle that had been nursed back to health by a local
    wildlife group.

    “It was amazing to hold the eagle in my arms, then launch him
    skyward and see his mighty wings carry him back to freedom,” she said.

    Norton said she, too, sought freedom.

    “I’m looking forward to visiting a national park without holding a
    press conference there,” she said. “I’m looking forward to enjoying the
    wide-open spaces again.”

    Her communications director, Tina Kreisher, said Norton had decided
    she wanted to step down as interior secretary last year, just before
    Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf coast.

    “When Katrina and Rita hit, she felt a responsibility to stay on,” Kreisher said.

    Bush called Norton, a former Colorado attorney general, a strong
    advocate for “the wise use and protection of our nation’s natural

    “When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region, she played
    a leading role in my administration’s efforts to restore badly needed
    offshore energy production,” he said.

    As one of the architects of Bush’s energy policy, Norton eased
    regulations to speed approval of oil and gas drilling permits,
    particularly in New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

    In her first three years, the pace of drilling permits issued by
    Interior’s Bureau of Land Management rose 70 percent. She also was the
    administration’s biggest advocate for opening the Arctic National
    Wildlife Refuge on Alaska’s North Slope to oil drilling, areas
    considered sensitive for caribou and other wildlife.

    “We have improved the ways we are protecting wildlife in ways that
    energy development is responsible,” she said Friday. “We spent billions
    of dollars in improving wildlife habitat and otherwise restoring the

    Many environmentalists and Democrats have been sharply critical of her stewardship of public lands.

    “Gale Norton was an unpopular symbol of unpopular policies,” said
    Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. “Americans do not
    believe their public lands should be sold to the highest bidder, and
    they don’t believe in privatizing their parks, forests, monuments.
    While the symbol of those unpopular policies may be leaving, we don’t
    expect those unpopular policies to change.”

    But others, such as the Nature Conservancy’s president, Steve
    McCormick, praised her for working as close partners in creating
    Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park, the new Glacial Ridge
    National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota and the Rocky Mountain Front
    Conservation Area in Montana.

    Norton led the Bush administration’s push for “cooperative
    conservation” _ shifting more of the responsibility for land management
    and recovery of endangered species to states and local communities. The
    Interior Department oversees the government’s ownership of one-fifth of
    the nation’s land.

    Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Friday he will attempt to block any
    successor who supports the department’s current plans to open a
    200-million-acre area in the eastern Gulf of Mexico to new oil and gas

    Until Bush appoints a successor, Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett will take the helm of the agency.

    Norton was a protege of James Watt, the controversial interior
    secretary during President Reagan’s first term in office. Watt was
    forced to resign after characterizing a coal commission in terms that
    were viewed by some as a slur.

    Before joining the administration, Norton was one of the negotiators
    of a $206 billion national tobacco settlement in a suit by Colorado and
    45 other states. She was Colorado’s attorney general from 1991 to 1999.

    In 1996, she sought the Republican Senate nomination in Colorado but
    was defeated by Wayne Allard, who now holds the seat. Later she
    co-founded the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, a
    group that has become embroiled in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

    Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to federal felony charges related
    to congressional influence peddling and defrauding Indian tribes in
    Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas of millions of

    The tribes were either seeking casino licenses or trying to prevent
    other tribes from opening competing casinos. In e-mail exchanges that
    have been made public since his plea, Abramoff mentioned having an
    inside track at the Interior Department, and his clients donated
    heavily to the advocacy group Norton helped establish.

    Steven Griles, Norton’s former deputy, had a close relationship with
    Abramoff, according to several e-mail exchanges that are now the
    subject of investigations by a Senate committee and the Justice

    Norton briefly defended Griles on Friday.

    “I know that Steve Griles was a great asset for this department and
    what I saw of his conduct was aboveboard and very conscientious,” she

    Norton met Abramoff in her office at least once and attended a
    dinner at which he was present, but aides have described the meetings
    as nonsubstantive.

    Kreisher added Friday: “The decisions in this building did not go Abramoff’s way.”

    © 2006 The Associated Press