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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Norton’s legacy not something to be proud of

Western lands more open to oil and gas drilling and to logging. A greater emphasis on making federal land accessible to the public. Fewer protections for wilderness.

Those are part of the legacy of Gale Norton’s five years as interior secretary. While unpopular with conservationists, she has won supporters because of her ability to negotiate delicate compromises by involving the public and local governments in federal decisions. Among her successes is a resolution to a years-long dispute among Colorado River users.

Few federal agencies have as much influence over the western U.S. as the Interior Department, which oversees American Indian affairs, national parks, and mining, drilling and grazing on millions of acres of publicly owned lands.

Norton, citing personal reasons, said Friday she was stepping down at the end of the month. Many of the programs she championed on behalf of the Bush administration were hugely controversial and will have lasting effects in the West.

“She has been an integral part of the most anti-environmental administration we’ve ever seen,” said Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.

By the end of next year, federal agencies project officials will have cut trees on more than 21.5 million acres forest since 2001, partly as a result of Norton’s support for a healthy forest law. It called for giving timber companies more access to public forests so they could clear debris and weak trees, which can lead to forest fires.

Environmentalists, though, charge that the policy was a front to give access to national forests to logging companies that support Bush.

During her tenure, oil and gas companies won thousands of permits to drill in western states as the administration moved to speed domestic oil and gas production.

Bureau of Land Management employees and others have publicly criticized the administration for placing such an emphasis on energy development that they don’t have time for research and to investigate the environmental impact of drilling.

Environmentalists say that drilling has encroached on lands that should be designated as wilderness not open for development and has affected populations of sage grouse and mule deer.

“The Bureau of Land Management has essentially become the bureau of oil and gas development,” said Dave Alberswerth, a public lands expert with the Wilderness Society.

Industry groups dispute such claims and say the forest policy, for example, has improved the health and safety of the West by strengthening national forests.

“If (environmentalists) want to continue to beat those drums to solicit money from concerned soccer moms, they can do that,” said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group. “The reality on the ground is things are better as a result of Gale Norton’s tenure.”

Norton has occasionally showed a softer side of the department, spotlighting the creation of the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, for example. But conservation groups point to the department’s 2007 budget blueprint as evidence of their claims.

The budget proposes cuts to several programs, including $89 million from the National Park Service’s nearly $2.6 billion budget. It also would raise $250 million over five years by selling 125,000 acres of the Bureau of Land Management’s 261 million acres.

The department has said the lands sold will likely be small parcels with little natural, historical or cultural value. Environmentalists argue that it could set a dangerous precedent.

¬© 2006 The Associated Press