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