Interior's Norton says rez economy is job number one


WASHINGTON ? Creating jobs and economic growth on reservations is getting top priority at the Interior Department, Interior Secretary Gale Norton told Indian Country Today in an exclusive interview Sept. 9.

Tribal sovereignty and tax autonomy, at least on reservation territory, are tools for the job, she acknowledged. She also endorsed the importance of the individual entrepreneur on the reservation, even though federal programs are heavily weighted to tribal government-owned enterprises.

In a wide-ranging 75-minute discussion, Norton admitted that Republican Party ideology harmonized with these key principles of Indian country, even though they often prove controversial with right-wing politicians and editorial writers.

She also argued that the Bush Administration's new forest management policy would create potential business opportunities for Indian tribes, who she said might be asked to contract for stewardship of some federal lands.

"Frankly, the reservation forests tend to be better than the public land forests because the tribes have paid more attention to their management, over time, than the other federal land managers," she said.

Norton also touted the upcoming National Summit on Emerging Tribal Economies, scheduled for Sept. 16-19 in Phoenix. She is scheduled to speak Sept. 17 along with Assistant Interior Secretary - Indian Affairs Neal McCaleb. Norton said that more than 1,100 tribal representatives, federal officials and business leaders had already registered for the three days of sessions. Eighteen federal agencies were sponsoring the meeting.

"We're going to have a really good program that covers a whole range of different types of industry and capital formation that should be really interesting," she said.

Norton also endorsed the importance of individual Indian enterprise, often an overlooked element of government economic development.

"I think you have to have the individual entrepreneurs in order for any type of economic activity to be successful," she said. "The one individual who has an idea and is willing to work night and day to see that accomplished is at the core of so much successful business."

Norton also gave a somewhat reluctant endorsement of tribal tax sovereignty as a principle compatible with Republican "supply-side" economics.

"Some of the taxing issues become very complex and I know that it depends, to a certain extent, on a particular situation or the type of tax that we're looking at," she said. "There are a lot of issues that attach to the governance of a reservation that fit well within our political science concepts of governing a particular territory, that become a lot more complex if you're talking about off-site governance and off-site activities of tribes. And so there are some of those things we are just going to have to work through as the proposals come up."