Norton resigns from Interior as scandal builds


WASHINGTON -- Gale A. Norton announced her resignation yesterday as the nation's first female secretary of the interior, ending a controversial five-year tenure at a time when the cloud of a burgeoning lobbying scandal is looming over her agency.

Her resignation is to take effect at the end of this month.

Norton, 51, said she and her husband, who moved to Washington from Colorado, "hope to end up closer to the mountains we love in the West."

At the White House, President Bush in a statement hailed Norton as "a strong advocate for the wise use and protection of our nation's natural resources."

But Norton's drive to open vast stretches of Western government lands to more energy exploration made her highly unpopular among preservationists and environmentalists. She also fervently pushed to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska's North Slope to such exploration.

Her fervor prompted some Interior Department career employees to refer to the western U.S. as "the OPEC states" because they felt pressured to approve oil and gas permits. While environmental groups today cheered her imminent departure, they hardly expected Bush to name a replacement whose views are more to their liking.

During Norton's first three years as secretary, Interior's Bureau of Land Management issued drilling permits at a record pace, increasing the number of permits by 70 percent since the Clinton administration.

In recent months, Norton was linked to Washington's burgeoning lobbying scandals by her former chief deputy, Steven Griles, who was close to "super lobbyist" Jack Abramoff.

A second former close Norton associate, Italia Federici, who worked with a nonprofit organization that promoted energy interests, also was linked to Abramoff. Federici helped him gain access to Griles in exchange for contributions from Indian tribes who had hired Abramoff as their lobbyist.

Abramoff has pleaded guilty to charges stemming from an investigation of his connections to members of Congress and the Bush White House.

Before moving to Washington, Norton served as Colorado's attorney general.

In her letter to the president, she said the Interior Department had "accomplished great work in the face of hurricanes, record-setting wildfires and droughts, acrimonious litigation, and expanded post 9-11 security responsibilities."

Norton also stated that the department had conserved millions of acres of public and private lands and steered the nation toward cooperative conservation by working with landowners and local groups.

Under her watch, Norton said, more than 5 million acres and 10,000 miles of streams and shorelines have been restored or protected through voluntary initiatives.

Bush lauded her "vision for cooperative conservation, protection and improvement of our national parks and public lands, and environmentally responsible energy development on public lands and waters."

As a result of her stewardship, the president said, "Americans will be able to better enjoy our great national parks and wildlife refuges for generations to come."

One leading environmental activist offered a sharply contrasting assessment.

"Gale Norton was an unpopular symbol of unpopular policies. 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," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club.

"Unless the Bush administration reverses direction, her replacement will merely be a different fox guarding the hen house. ... It's hard to imagine that the next Interior secretary will be allowed to promote smart energy solutions that protect sensitive lands, waters and wildlife habitat," he said.

Edwin Chen and Tom Hamburger write for the Los Angeles Times.

Gale A. Norton

Age: 52

Birthdate: March 11, 1954

Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Denver, 1975; law degree, University of Denver, 1978

Experience: Secretary of the interior, 2001-2006; senior attorney, Brownstein, Hyatt & Farber, PC, 1999-2000; attorney general in Colorado, 1990-1999; associate solicitor at the Interior Department, 1985-1990; assistant to the deputy secretary of agriculture, 1984-1985; attorney, Mountain States Legal Foundation, 1979-1983

Quote: "As a person deeply committed to bipartisan and civil public discourse, one aspect of Washington I will not miss is the divisiveness that too often prevails," Norton in her resignation letter to President Bush

[ Associated Press]

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