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Norton Speaks: Interior Secretary on wildfires, economic summit, sovereignty and taxes

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Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton gave an exclusive 75-minute interview to Indian Country Today Sept. 9 in her conference room. Also in attendance were Aurene M. Martin, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs; Eric Ruff, Assistant to the Secretary and Director of Communications; Daniel J. Dubray, Communications Director for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs; two other Interior staff members including Norton's speech writer; and, from Indian Country Today, Tim Johnson, Executive Editor, and Jose Barreiro, Senior Editorial Advisor. Following is the first half of the interview, dealing with economic issues and the upcoming tribal Economic Development Summit. A second portion dealing with Trust Fund issues will follow later.

ICT: Throughout this summer we've all seen what appears to be an increasing number of very destructive forest fires. What is the Bush administration doing to protect Indian country's forests and to establish better forest policy nationwide?

NORTON: This is something that, of course, has a big impact in Indian country as we saw from the fires in Arizona, especially. We also relied heavily on the Indian community for firefighters and so from two perspectives, well actually three perspectives; this has a lot of impact.

Many years ago the forests had a lot of grasslands between the trees that fires used to come through regularly and wipe out the small trees and leave the big trees healthy. And we interfered with that over the decades by suppressing the fires we got away from sort of open feeling of much of the forest and went to forests that are much more dense. What happens with the dense forest is the fire comes through and it wipes out all of the trees instead of leaving the big trees. (The Secretary showed a series of pictures from an administration paper entitled "Healthy Forests: An Initiative for Wildfire Prevention and Stronger Communities.") This shows what natural fire looks like; the flames stay very close to the ground, and basically go for just the small vegetation. And this is a picture of an area that, believe it or not, the fire went through. And this is what we call catastrophic fire, fire that gets into the crown of the trees and destroys the trees that have been there for centuries. And so clearly, it wipes out the entire forest.

What we're talking about today in terms of fire is different than what we have seen ever in the past and so the fires we have today are just not natural fires. They're much more destructive to the forest ecosystem than past fires were. 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, but I think there are a lot of opportunities for the tribes that tie in with some of our current efforts. For one, I think having the tribes on a continuing basis get more involved in active management of their forests, is a good idea. There may be some areas where tribes might compete for stewardship contracts on other public lands. One of the President's initiatives is called Stewardship Contracting. That would allow the Forest Service or the Department of the Interior to enter into ten-year contracts. The contractors would essentially get paid in-kind; they would be paid by the wood products that would be taken out of the forests. It's a little more complicated than that in reality, but that is the basic concept.

One of the things I did last week was visit Aurene's (Aurene M. Martin, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Indian Affairs) college campus' forest products laboratory that is working on what we can do to utilize the small wood that is taken out of the forest when you do a thinning project. And so they look at the uses of small trees and wood chips. One great example is laminated wood I-beam, a quarter-inch thick, that is as strong as a piece of (solid) piece of wood the same size. I think there is perhaps a lot of opportunity for small businesses to begin in a number of communities and I could [see] some of them being well fitted for tribal economic development operations.

One of the other things I found interesting is in Montana they have a school system that is being heated by wood chips. They are basically using a furnace system that does a much better job in protecting against air pollution than just a usual wood stove. Having this furnace system provides the heat for several different schools from one place. I can see that if you've got a tribe that is either trying to take care of its own forest, or do something that is part of a contract for taking care of other forest areas, using the wood products in that kind of way could be very beneficial.

I think prescribed burns are an important tool, but they don't work everyplace and there are other options. Obviously we'll use prescribed burns as a tool but we can also find a way to allow some families to make a living from the products from the forest. That's very beneficial.

ICT: We've heard from some old timers in the Northwest, as one example, that some of their Native cultures used prescribed burns as a part of their forest management practices.

NORTON: Actually the head of the fire management program for forestry for the BIA was telling me the other day about some of the long-standing practices of using prescribed burns by Native Americans, and that, frankly, is one of the things that contributed to the reason why forests looked the way they did centuries ago, as opposed to the unhealthy state they are in today.

ICT: Do you see that as part of this particular forest policy there will be some economic development initiative to assist Indian country, by providing capital or some kind of incentive for Indians to develop these kinds of industries?

NORTON: Well the first step is we are going to invite the people who are heads of this lab to come to our Economic Development Summit that's taking place [Sept. 16-19]. It's a little premature to say exactly where we are going, I haven't had much of a chance to talk to my staff about how to do that, but I think there are some great possibilities.

ICT: Does the Department have any initiative with the White Mountain Apache Tribe?

NORTON: I know that the Deputy Secretary Steve Griles visited and talked with the tribal leaders, and we are looking at doing some follow-up.

ICT: Would this forestry discussion be a central component of the Economic Development Summit?

NORTON: Well the first step is we are going to invite the people who are heads of this lab to come to our Economic Development Summit that's taking place [Sept. 16-19]. It's a little premature to say exactly where we are going, I haven't had much of a chance to talk to my staff about how to do that, but I think there are some great possibilities.

Actually this is something we've just added on to that. Folks in Indian Affairs, Neal McCaleb, is working a lot on this summit. He is very excited about it. 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.

AURENE MARTIN, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs: The idea behind the summit is to look at ways to create economic development and really explore what we need to do improve Indian economies. It is scheduled for three days and set up into different segments. One is private business day, one is tribal day, and the third is federal day. What we're looking at is exploring how to provide stability in Indian country, which is one of the main needs that we have in order to attract business. We want to look at what strategies tribes can use to attract capital investors. Also, how can we provide new contracting opportunities to tribes? So there is a whole range of activity that we are planning over those three days that we need to explore.

ICT: Beyond Indian gaming, how can American Indian sovereignty be used to benefit non-gaming tribes and what stimulants or initiatives are being considered to improve economic development in these areas of Indian country, enterprise zones, etc?

NORTON: The Southern Utes in Colorado are a great example of a tribe that has done well with its resources. I worked with them for a number of years when I was Attorney General of Colorado. I've been working with them for the last dozen years and so I've gotten to know their leaders. They have a very sophisticated business approach and have really done some terrific things in the oil and gas area. They are certainly a great model that I am aware of. I think that the energy area is one that has tremendous potential for many of the tribes. There are obviously some that have oil or natural gas or coal resources. We want to work with those tribes and help them utilize their resources in a way that they want to see them used. In some cases that's providing technical assistance. In some cases it is getting out of the way and letting them move forward with their own ventures.

There are other opportunities for tribes that are interested in renewable energy. That is something that we also want to facilitate. We had a coincidence of two conferences last fall, one on renewable energies, generally, and one on tribal energy issues. We found that both groups really wanted to talk to the other group. So that I think gives a great deal of possibility for tribes that might not have the mineral resources.

ICT: Any exploration of the use of what you might call "tax-free" enterprise zones or expanding on American Indian powers and authorities in that area?

NORTON: Well on the energy side of things to continue there, the Senate, or congressional conference committee working on the energy bill is looking at a provision on tribal energy development. I believe that will include some provisions to make it advantageous for tribes to develop tribal resources.

ICT: This administration, as well as several previous administrations, has affirmed the sovereignty of American Indian governments in its written executive platform. Can you give us an overview of how well you believe the Bush administration has implemented its approach to working with American Indian governments?

NORTON: We have worked very closely with tribal leaders and, I think, developed some good interpersonal relationships as well as a good understanding on our part of what some of the problems are. It is very important to us to enhance the ability of tribes to move forward with economic development. I think that is a solution to many of the problems we see in Indian country.

We have also focused on education as one of the long-term solutions. I've been very encouraged by what I have seen in some of the Indian schools that I've visited.

One of the things I think is really exciting is the FACE Program, Family and Childhood Education. That's where we start working with young mothers very early on and involve the parents in childhood development and the understanding of that as well as in the education process. It focuses both on providing little children with activities that will enhance their development, but also encouraging the parents to get involved with the schools and to further their own education. So we're working with the parents to become role models for the kids. What I saw when I visited the classroom and sat down with some of the parents, that it wasn't just the mothers. Grandparents were there also working with the kids, reading books and using sensory development activities that you need to do for very young kids. You could really tell that it was having an impact. I think that is a great program. We've been expanding that program. It offers a lot of possibilities to help kids get started in school.

We've also focused on the physical aspects of schools, building new schools and repairing some of the other schools, gradually improving physical facilities. We have defined the goals for education. We're working with the educators themselves to strengthen the schools. This is all consistent with President Bush's message of "leaving no child behind." And I think that is working out well in Indian country.

ICT: We also saw that President Bush signed an executive order on tribal colleges. What do you hope will be the outcome of that initiative?

NORTON: We've been working on education on all levels so working with the educators of the tribal colleges as well as the K through 12 schools. There are a number of valuable functions that tribal community colleges and other higher education institutions perform.

ICT: This question is broader, concerning Bush administration policies in relation to tribal self-determination and economic development. Is the Bush administration prepared to embrace tribal self-determination and tax sovereignty as fully compatible with Republican planks of local self-government and supply-side tax reduction?

NORTON: In the long run, the future of the tribes can be a bright one, if they take control of their own decision-making. I think that there are so many people with great ideas and energy that are held back by having to move the whole federal bureaucracy in order to make changes. I think that in the long run tribes can accomplish great things with their own initiative, so that's certainly something I feel very strongly as the appropriate end result. We want to work with tribes to assist them at whatever stage they think is appropriate in their process. There are some tribes that really want to move forward and to have control of programs, to use self-governance and their own contracting to take charge of programs, and we want to work with them. There are other tribes that really want to have the federal agencies provide services and we'll work with them as well. I think that we certainly want to encourage self-determination and self-governance.

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. 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.

ICT: One of the issues in Indian country when we talk to Indian entrepreneurs is that it is often the tribes that have access to all the capital and resources. Is there any consideration here about how to get capital into the hands of the American Indian private sector? Sometimes we find Indian businesses having to compete with their governments in any number of enterprises.

NORTON: I think you have to have the individual entrepreneurs in order for any type of economic activity to be successful. 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. We certainly want to encourage that. On the other hand the core of our (Interior's) activities is on the government-to-government relationship, and so there is a lot more that we do that focuses on the tribal economic development in a governmental sense, more so than on the individuals.

ICT: From your language it does seem that the idea of solutions to American Indian issues reside in strong self-governance and self-determination for the tribes.

NORTON: Yes. It's a choice for the tribal members to make for themselves, and our role is to facilitate their self-determination. If that takes them in the direction of going off their separate ways, that is their business. Our job is to help with that self-determination.