Former Colorado AG nominated for Interior

WASHINGTON - The introduction of former Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton by President-elect Bush as his nominee for Secretary of the Interior has environmentalists alarmed and developers celebrating.

"In my administration, she'll have a clear charge," Bush said in a news conference announcing his nominee. "We will restore our national parks systems and we will develop partnerships with states and local governments and private citizens to conserve our lands and resources and protect the endangered species of America."

In a following statement, Norton reiterated the commitment to preserving national treasures, along with partnerships with private citizens and state and local governments, conspicuously leaving tribal governments out of the equation.

While these comments may not bode well for tribal governments, Norton is not completely lacking when it comes to working with Indian tribes.

There are two federally recognized tribes in Colorado - the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute. Norton has vast experience dealing with both tribes, especially over the issue of water rights.

Members of these tribes still haul water to their homes nearly 100 years after planning began on a dam to capture spring runoff on the Animas River. Dam planners said in 1905 that the project would be completed quickly, but since then the Animas-LaPlata proposal has languished in political limbo in the U.S. Congress. Anti-dam activists labeled the project a waste of money, while proponents praised it as a solution for the water problems of the Utes and other communities of the arid southwestern region of Colorado.

Norton made it clear she supports the project and that she believes Congress is hurting the proposal by interfering with an agreement reached between the state, the tribes, and the Department of Interior. While some ground has been gained in convincing Congress to approve the project, some obstacles remain.

Called a "right wing extremist" by Defenders of Wildlife, Norton worked for former Secretary of Interior James Watt who criticized environmental laws, advocated logging and promoted mineral exploration on federal lands.

"She has stated she is not James Watt in a skirt," said Lori Goodman, board member of Din? Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, a grass-roots group whose Navajo cofounder Leroy Jackson was found dead in 1993 after successfully halting clear-cut logging of the Navajos Chuska Mountains.

"The world is watching, and we want to believe that Norton does care for the environment over needless resource exploitation."

She went on to say, "Ms. Norton harshly criticized Clinton for not communicating with the people directly impacted. We hope she extends these sentiments when the Bush administration gears up to open the Arctic wildlife (refuge) for oil development."

If confirmed, Norton would oversee the BIA, Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and National Park Service.

Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers, said confirmation will signal a battle for the future of wildlife, rivers and lands.

"On her watch we will decide whether to invade the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for the sake of a few months' worth of oil. ... She has argued for giving far more leeway to corporations and state and local governments in deciding whether or not to follow our nation's basic environmental laws."

However, Jerry Taylor, natural resource director for the libertarian Cato Institute, promoting the privatization of public lands was among those celebrating Norton's nomination.

"Happy days are here again."

Norton, while serving two terms as Colorado's attorney general, 1990 and 1994, opposed tougher anti-emissions standards. She also favored a change in federal law that would allow polluters to avoid legal trouble if they turned themselves in and cleaned up dumps.

The 46-year-old attorney born in Wichita, Kan., promoted a tough stance on crime, working to shorten death-penalty appeals, but supported abortion rights while Colorado's attorney general. She lost a bid for a Republican Senate seat in 1996 and returned to private legal practice in 1999.

Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said conservationists "will hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

"It is also not encouraging that in her first appearance as the Interior secretary designee, Norton chose to emphasize her desire to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."

Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, expressed similar alarm. "Her history includes assignment as a fellow with the Political Economy Research Center think tank, which has taken disturbing environmental positions such as outlining methods for selling off national parks."

On the other hand, developers celebrated Norton's appointment., including the National Association of Home Builders, which hopes Norton will continue her pattern of diminishing the effects of environmental laws, which she began as Colorado's attorney general.

"We look forward to working with Interior Secretary-designate Norton on fine-tuning the implementation of the Endangered Species Act so that it properly protects species without unnecessarily disrupting economic growth," said Robert Mitchell, a home builder from Rockville, Md., and president of the 203,000-member organization.

Environmentalists, however, say "fine-tuning" is just another term for deflating federal environmental laws designed to protect the caribou, polar bear, grizzly bear, gray wolf and Dall sheep in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, now targeted by President-elect Bush.

Schlickeisen said the Norton pick is a move to the far right and reflects the extremist views that led to the removal of Watt.

"Based upon her credentials, it is difficult not to conclude that her selection reflects not a desire by President-elect Bush to govern as a moderate on environmental issues, but rather his intention to find common ground with the anti-environmental, far right wing of his party. "

Norton was a major player in the National Tobacco Settlement and even testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on the settlement's impacts on Indian tribes. As part of the settlement, she called for elimination of tobacco marketing to youth and compensation to the states, the tribes and individuals injured by the past practices of the industry.

She advocated for the inclusion of tribal governments within the settlement at all levels, with direct funding for regulation and enforcement commensurate with the states.

While Norton has shown herself to be an ally of Indian country, the most controversial issue in her appointment - the opening of ANWR to oil and gas exploration - placed her at early odds with one tribe and possibly the nation's largest Indian organization, the National Congress of American Indians.

The Gwich'in Indians of northeastern Alaska and NCAI have opposed opening ANWR to oil and gas exploration for years, citing the impact on the traditional lifeways of the Gwich'in. The Gwich'in have relied on the porcupine caribou herd, whose calving grounds include ANWR, for subsistence and cultural survival for generations. The Gwich'in say they fear for the future of their children and grandchildren.

"It is our belief that the future of the Gwich'in and the future of the caribou are the same," said Jonathan Solomon of the village of Fort Yukon. "We cannot stand by and let them sell our children's heritage to the oil companies. Embodied in the Gwich'in way of life is a land ethic and a lesson for us all."

NCAI and some individual tribes passed a number of resolutions supporting the Gwich'in and the protection of caribou calving grounds within ANWR, while the Alaska Congressional delegation, along with President-elect Bush, have been calling for opening ANWR to oil and gas exploration because of the nation's current energy shortage.

"President-elect Bush took a position as part of his campaign that, because of the need to balance environmental protection and also our need to utilize the resources of the public lands, we should explore opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas exploration," Norton said. "The belief is that there are large amounts of oil available in that area."

The Clinton administration has long opposed the idea and at times has been the only thing standing in the way of opening ANWR. Now that Bush will take over, it may only be a matter of time before ANWR is opened.

And with Norton set to begin work with a tone opposing tribal interests, will tribal governments find themselves clamoring to be heard amid the voices of private citizens, corporations, and state and local governments? Such questions will inevitably be answered in the next four years. Norton's nomination must still be approved by the Senate.

Renee Still Day, American Indian activist living in Pueblo, Colo., said the outcome of the close presidential race, culminating with the confirmation of Bush as president-elect and the Norton pick, were foreshadowed.

"The Greens should be hanging their heads in shame. This is what they were warned would happen and they will now have to live their worst nightmare."