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 resources."
"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 environment.
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 drilling.
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 dollars.
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 Department.
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 said.
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."