home imipono about
facebook flickr youtube twitter

THE 43RD PRESIDENT; Interior Choice Sends a Signal On Land Policy

Published: December 30, 2000

go to original

As a young lawyer in President Ronald Reagan's Interior Department, Gale Norton was part of an unsuccessful effort to persuade Congressional Democrats to open Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration.

Now Ms. Norton is poised to plunge back into that bitter fight, this time as interior secretary under another Republican president who has accused Democrats of doing too much to lock up natural resources in the name of conservation.

With President-elect George W. Bush vowing to allow oil companies access to the wildlife refuge, and most Democrats aligned strongly against the plan, the battle over new oil drilling in Alaska is shaping up as a defining controversy for the early months of the Bush administration. And in naming Ms. Norton, 46, as his steward of the nation's public lands, Mr. Bush has sent a strong signal that what he has in mind -- and not only in Alaska -- would indeed mark a sharp shift in course.

Except for the choice of John Ashcroft as attorney general, no Bush cabinet selection so far may create more opposition than this one. It was unclear how actively environmental groups might fight to block Ms. Norton's nomination, but the Sierra Club, in particular, commands a broad membership and has shown a willingness to spend large amounts of money in such political battles.

A former protege of James Watt, Mr. Reagan's first interior secretary, Ms. Norton has long been an outspoken advocate of granting states, localities and even private corporations a greater voice in environmental decisions that under Democratic leadership have been mostly the preserve of the federal government.

''She believes very much that less regulation is better, and that the best control is at the lowest level of government possible,'' said Matti Allbright, who served as Colorado's deputy attorney general under Ms. Norton. ''I don't think she's going to push around those who are trying to come up with their own solutions.''

In a hint of the turnabout that seems to be under way, those who were celebrating Ms. Norton's appointment most loudly today included groups like the oil industry and off-road enthusiasts, who have complained that their views about federal lands were being ignored under the Clinton administration.

At the Cato Institute, a research organization in Washington that is a vigorous opponent of federal regulation, Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource policy, said he and other fellows were ''popping Champagne'' in celebration of Mr. Bush's choice.

''The appointment of Gale Norton is a throwing down of the gauntlet against the constituency who believes that the federal government needs to lock up more land or wall off existing land from further economic exploitation,'' Mr. Taylor said.

By contrast, the loudest complaints came from the environmental groups that most often came out as winners in Mr. Clinton's big decisions, and who warned that the choice of Ms. Norton would presage a return to darker times.

''Our view is that this is James Watt in a skirt,'' said Allen Mattison, the national spokesman for the Sierra Club, suggesting that Ms. Norton might prove as unsympathetic to conservationists as Mr. Watt, who hired her at the Mountain States Legal Foundation after she left the University of Denver.

As interior secretary, Mr. Watt outraged environmentalists on many fronts, in particular by trying to bypass Congressional restrictions in order to allow oil and gas exploration in protected areas of the West. Mr. Watt was seen as sympathetic to the ranchers and miners who in the late 1970's had waged what they called a Sagebrush Rebellion against federal authority, and he could be personally provocative, at one point ordering, for reasons of political symbolism, that the buffalo on the Interior Department seal, which had always faced to the left, face to the right instead.

As attorney general, Ms. Norton was a strong advocate of Colorado's ''self-audit'' law, which lets companies conduct voluntary audits to determine whether they are complying with environmental requirements. The law gives businesses immunity from litigation and fines if they report and correct the violations, and it and others like it have faced strong opposition from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ms. Norton later moved on to serve in the Agriculture Department and then in the Interior Department, where she oversaw legal issues involving endangered species and public lands.

In 1990, she was elected attorney general in Colorado, where she defeated a three-term incumbent, and where she won re-election four years later. Ms. Norton lost a 1996 bid for the United States Senate when she was defeated in the Republican primary, and left office in 1998 under Colorado's term-limits laws. She has since been employed as senior counsel at Brownstein, Hyatt & Farber, a leading Colorado law firm.

Ms. Norton and her husband, John G. Hughes, a commercial real estate broker, live in Highlands Ranch, Colo., a suburb south of Denver.

Ms. Norton has been a firm champion of the view that federal power should be passed down to the states and other interests.

She is a member of the board of the Independence Institute, a Colorado-based organization that describes itself as a champion of the free market and which introduced her in 1996 as a ''hero of devolution.'' As attorney general, Ms. Norton succeeded in persuading the Bush and Clinton administrations to modify rigid environmental cleanup regulations to accelerate the cleanup of hazardous wastes at Rocky Flats, a nuclear weapons site, and at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a manufacturing point for chemical weapons.

But Ms. Norton's opposition to top-down solutions also made for considerable frustration, her associates said, when her espousal of Colorado-born solutions ran headlong into federal opposition. In a 1996 speech, Ms. Norton criticized what she said had been the Clinton administration's challenges to Colorado's self-audit approach, including what she said had been a threat to cut off millions of dollars in federal assistance ''because we had the audacity to adopt something in environmental area.''

''We'll have the opportunity to do battle once again on the issue of the state being able to make its own decisions,'' she said, and then continued: ''Just as free markets triumphed over communism, we are in a time when the intellectual debate is shifting; when we are part of the framework that will make these things happen; when we can be part of the intellectual battle that shift power from Washington back to states and local communities.''

In interviews today, several former associates described Ms. Norton as a person who was willing to compromise to seek consensus. David Kopel, a Democrat who said that Ms. Norton's conservative background prompted some trepidation within the Colorado attorney general's office, said she had instead proven herself to be ''conservative with a small 'c,' in that she is cautious and not inclined to push radical solutions.''

''She's able to work very well across partisan barriers, and I think that's precisely what that agency needs,'' said Christine Gregoire, a Democrat who is the attorney general in Washington State, and who chose Ms. Norton to represent Colorado and other states in what became the $206 billion national tobacco settlement, the largest legal settlement in history.

Phil Carlton, a tobacco industry attorney in those negotiations, said Ms. Norton had distinguished herself among his adversaries in that she was willing to listen to both sides of the issue.

Among the most enthusiastic responses to Ms. Norton's selection was from the Independent Petroleum Producers Association, whose 5,000 members represent 85 percent of the oil wells drilled in the United States. It said that Ms. Norton ''understands the issues in the West where federal land so dominates access to the natural resource base,'' and that it was ''looking forward to working with her to address the energy supply problems that are so significant in our nation today.''


Gale Ann Norton

BORN: March 11, 1954, in Wichita, Kan.

HOMETOWN: Highlands Ranch, Colo.

EDUCATION: Thornton High School, Thornton, Colo.; B.A., University of Denver; J.D. University of Denver

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Clerk, Colorado Court of Appeals, 1978-79; lawyer, Mountain States Legal Foundation, 1979-83; assistant to deputy secretary, United States Department of Agriculture, 1984-85; associate solicitor, United States Department of Interior, 1985-87; private law practice, 1987-90; attorney general of Colorado, 1991-99; private law practice 1999-present.

FAMILY: Married to John G. Hughes

HOBBIES: Golf and skiing.

back to documents
©2008 Statehood Hawaii