Gale Norton resigns post as Interior secretary

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WASHINGTON – Secretary of the Interior Department Gale Norton announced her resignation March 10, spurring a chorus of negative commentary on her tenure from Indian country and a curt “good riddance” press release from one pro-environmental organization.

Norton was a high-value target of environmentalists as she presided over the Bush administration’s program of loosening land-use and land-management restrictions in favor of energy exploration and development. In easing regulation of Western public lands, the Bush administration, on Norton’s watch, has issued record numbers of oil and gas drilling permits while actual wells in the ground have declined, according to the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management reports.

The Wilderness Society noted a 62 percent increase in drilling permit approvals on Western public lands in 2004; yet “the number of new wells that were drilled declined by nearly 10 percent – despite high natural gas prices,” in theory at least a stellar predictor of oil and gas exploration and development.

One clear insinuation of these numbers is that oil and gas companies were stockpiling permits and leases while the getting was good – that is, on Norton’s watch. According to the Wilderness Society, “This information confirms that the oil and gas industry has plenty of access to our public lands, despite their complaints to the contrary,” complaints that appear to have gotten a ready hearing within Norton’s Interior.

Similarly, BLM data from 2004 indicate that it managed more than 42 million acres then under lease, with less than 12 million of those actually in production. The Wilderness Society Web site concluded, “With 30 million acres of leased land in the Rocky Mountain West not in production, and the increasing surplus of drilling permits, there is no reason why the BLM must continue to include environmentally-sensitive public lands in their regular oil and gas lease sales in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.”

But these and other practices did continue under Norton, leading many environmentalists to criticize her at a volume not heard since former Secretary James Watt ran Interior for President Ronald Reagan.

Norton’s critics within Indian country were scarcely less scathing, though some tribes that seek to develop their energy resources offered supportive words on learning of her resignation. But these were eclipsed by a host of harsher views that poured in from the four directions.

Elouise Cobell led the lawsuit over the Individual Indian Money trust, managed by Interior, that began under previous Secretary Bruce Babbitt and ran like an endless train wreck through Norton’s tenure. Norton herself was cited for contempt of court and later cleared; her department absorbed regular excoriations from a federal court judge; her first assistant secretary for Indian affairs, Neal McCaleb, resigned over his own contempt citation (also eventually voided); and the plaintiff IIM attorney team, along with occasional members of Congress and a growing proportion of the press corps, strongly criticized Interior for its dismal track record with the IIM trust and its perceived foot-dragging on reform. Ultimately, again on Norton’s watch, Interior and the plaintiff class became so embroiled that congressionally appointed mediators gave up trying to resolve their differences. (Congress has stepped in with pending legislation to settle the case.)

In the trust funds court case, Cobell said, “She really missed the opportunity of a lifetime ... If she would have taken steps to right this historical wrong, many of the Indian trust beneficiaries would not have suffered a lot of hurt and pain. I guess with me she goes down [in history as] not having done anything for individual Indian trust beneficiaries.”

Cobell wasn’t buying the notion that Norton simply implemented a Bush administration policy that would have fallen to another if she hadn’t been in office. “They prolonged this litigation ... People have gotten away with ignoring this situation for a hundred years. I don’t think people understood the power of this litigation, or how right this litigation was.”

Norton also courted trouble from tribes with an attempted reorganization of the BIA and an abortive separate trust division within the BIA.

Among Norton’s professional allies, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., issued a statement immediately following the resignation. Pombo, chairman of the Resources Committee in the House of Representatives, is an outspoken advocate of energy development. “The Secretary held one of the most difficult Cabinet positions and did so with grace and composure. For too long the important missions of the Department, to facilitate access to and development of natural resources vital to a prosperous and secure nation and stewarding our nation’s resources for future generations to enjoy, have been portrayed as mutually exclusive. Gale recognized that need not be the case and worked to find solutions that would achieve both of these important missions, tapping the most important resource of all, human ingenuity.”

Needless to say, President Bush also spoke well of his appointee.

But the warmest review came from Ross Swimmer, Interior’s special trustee on the trust funds. With generous funding from Congress, Swimmer and his team have made progress on one of the toughest jobs in government, bringing the Indian trust fund accounts and accounting systems into a condition Indian beneficiaries can trust going forward.

“The secretary has been intimately involved in everything we’ve been doing,” Swimmer said. “To her credit ... one of the first things she did was to establish an office of historical accounting ... to do what the court had ordered and to start the accounting process.”

She didn’t make the absence of historical trust transaction records an excuse for avoiding the task the court had set her, Swimmer remembered. “She went after the money to do that.” As more problems began to surface than anyone could have anticipated, Swimmer said, Norton realized that outdated information technology and a lack of fiduciary skills among trust funds staff were major components of her problem. In response she upgraded technology, created new positions for the administration of the trust and imported a training focus.

She also involved herself in pushing for probate reform and land consolidation. On top of her personal engagement with the issues, Swimmer said, Norton always went before Congress and the Office of Management and Budget and got the money to get the jobs done.

“She invested a tremendous amount of time and energy, personal time and energy.”

As a veteran of Washington and the federal government, Swimmer said it was unusual for a Cabinet head to commit herself personally instead of charging staff with the heavy tasks. “It was unusual, and it was required.” The Office of the Special Trustee wouldn’t have made the progress it has without her, Swimmer said.

“I don’t know if the individual Indian will acknowledge her at this time,” Swimmer said. “But I promise you, in two years, when we’ve completed what she started, it will be fantastic.”

Norton’s resignation becomes effective at the end of March. The White House had not designated her successor at press time.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Northern Cheyenne, the much-admired, retired U.S. senator from Colorado, said seven of his former colleagues in the Senate have put his name forward as the next Interior secretary. “That’s seven of a hundred,” he cautioned with a laugh, adding that the White House is probably considering a pool of candidates and hasn’t called him. But if the call ever comes, he said he’d consider the post.

“It’s not to be discounted lightly, when the president calls you to public service. I think I could do a thing or two for Indian people.”