When President-elect George W. Bush nominated Gale Norton to run the Department of Interior late last year, many pundits, activists, politicos and journalists were baffled.

Norton, 46, and a Denver-based lawyer, is relatively unknown nationally. The former Colorado Attorney General, who also worked as a top lawyer for James Watt's Interior Department, was not mentioned on the short list of candidates with Western politicians such as former Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot.

"I think she's still a puzzle, but it's not a mystery to me why she was appointed," says Bob Hartley of Westminster, Colo., a retired Pacific Northwest journalist who has followed Senator Gorton's career.

"She doesn't carry anything like the baggage Campbell and Gorton would carry. She also may be more likely to receive orders from the executive office and carry them out, rather than be someone with an agenda of her own."

Congress is expected to confirm Norton by the end of January, at which time she would become the first woman to run the Interior Department, which is responsible for one-quarter of the nation's land, 90,000 employees and nine federal agencies. At her nomination acceptance speech, Norton said she wants to consider opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development, a move that seems to signal an end to the conservation agenda of current Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt (see opinion page 16).

Free-marketeer

Although Norton may not be well known, those who know her cite her intelligence and experience.

"This is a woman who is bright, with guts and principles, and I think those are principles the environmental community can work with," says Denver lawyer David Rees, a self-described liberal Democrat and long-time friend of Norton's.

Rees says Norton's integrity cost her the Republican nomination for Colorado senator to Wayne Allard in 1996, when she refused to change her pro-choice stance.

What drives Norton, he says, is a Libertarian ideology and a belief in free-market economics. Based on this philosophy, says Rees, he would expect Norton to oppose price supports for mining companies that want to lease public land and to favor making corporations clean up their messes.

But Norton's Libertarian background is exactly what worries environmentalists such as Pam Eaton of The Wilderness Society.

"I think the biggest immediate impact of her philosophy will be on the Endangered Species Act," says Eaton. "Since she's a big private property-rights proponent, I would assume she will implement the Act in a way that most benefits landowners and least benefits wildlife."

Eaton also worries that the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, intended to expand public lands (HCN, 6/5/00), will be gutted, and that in general Norton will interpret environmental laws in a manner that gives more weight to social and economic factors.

That's certainly what she's done so far, says Carmi McLean of the Colorado-based Clean Water Action. As attorney general, McLean notes, Norton supported several "takings" bills in the state Legislature that would have prevented the government from enforcing environmental regulations if they interfered with private property. Of further concern, says McLean, is Norton's public support of state "self-audit" laws that say a corporation can't be sued for polluting air or water if it voluntarily assesses its practices.

"I'm very worried," says Bruce Hamilton of the Sierra Club, the group that initiated the Dump James Watt campaign. "She has a history of being closely associated with groups trying to get rid of public lands."

Hamilton points out that Norton was a fellow at the Political Economy Resource Center, a free-market think tank that worked to sell off the national parks in the 1980s. During her time at the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a law firm that represents extractive resource groups, Hamilton adds, the group tried to open up wilderness areas to oil and gas leasing; and while at the Interior Department, she wrote legal briefs advocating drilling for oil and gas in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She is also a founder, he says, of the Council of Republican Environmental Advocates, a group funded by the National Mining Association and several oil and gas companies.

"She has a fairly consistent record trying to get around environmental laws and now she's supposed to be the main enforcer," he says.

The right experience?

Others argue that Norton, who graduated from the University of Denver law school with honors and became attorney general at 36, is a quickly rising star.

"She's thoughtful and open to hearing all points of view," says Perry Pendley, president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, where James Watt hired Norton right after she graduated from law school.

Pendley notes that while at the Foundation she represented clients against Interior, but she also defended the agency during her time there as associate solicitor under James Watt.

"This wealth of experience makes her very well qualified," he says.

Colorado Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs, a former water lawyer, believes that she's a "fine appointment." During Norton's tenure as attorney general, Hobbs says she supported an effort on the Platte River to protect the whooping crane, was instrumental in cleaning up the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, and was critical in getting money for Colorado from the national tobacco settlement.

John Echohawk of the Native American Rights Fund says that she worked with Colorado's Ute tribes to reach a water-rights settlement and he's hopeful she will continue to help tribes as overseer of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency in the Interior Department.

But Colorado University law professor Charles Wilkinson says being a state attorney general is very different from serving as Interior Secretary of the nation.

As attorney general, her job was to litigate on behalf of the state, he says, while at Interior she will "become one of the biggest policy makers in the West."

And even if she wants to make sweeping changes in the management of the public lands, Wilkinson continues, it wouldn't be prudent to do so.

"It would be precipitous of her to depart in any significant way from the work (Interior Secretary) Babbitt has done because Bush doesn't have a mandate," says Wilkinson. "This administration has to be careful in taking any big steps against the environment; I think she's hemmed in by circumstances."

Rebecca Clarren is assistant editor for High Country News.

You can contact ...

  • Bush Transition Team press office, 202/513-7595;
  • The Wilderness Society, Four Corners office, 303/650-5818.