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A champion of 'cooperative conservation': Interior Secretary Gale Norton

  In recent months, High Country News has spilled a lot of ink covering the Bush administration’s policies for the public lands — and the controversies swirling around them. At the center of that storm is Bush’s secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton. Norton is charged with overseeing the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies that control some 500 million acres in the United States.

Norton is clearly passionate about some of the same things that earned President Clinton’s Interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, his reputation as an on-the-ground problem solver. She champions local decision-making through her "Four C’s" credo: "Communication, consultation and cooperation, all in the service of conservation." Her department has worked to protect endangered species habitat on private land.

But Norton also marks a major shift for Interior. The Clinton administration won praise from environmentalists for creating national monuments and providing temporary protection for proposed wilderness areas; the Bush administration is focused on pleasing the oil, gas, timber and ranching industries, from which many of its top officials are drawn. Babbitt used environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Antiquities Act to bring industry to the negotiating table; Norton has been an outspoken opponent of government regulation, and instead looks for economic incentives for conservation.

Recently, HCN Intern Alex Pasquariello caught up with Norton while she was touring Rocky Flats, a nuclear arsenal-turned wildlife refuge on the outskirts of Denver.

HCN: Tell us about some conservation efforts taking place in the West based on the "Four C’s" where you’ve played a key role.

Norton: Well, that’s a good cue for us showing how we’re putting our money where our mouth is. We have been working to create partnerships for conservation through a number of different programs. We have vastly increased the amount of funding that is available for conservation partnerships. In 2005, the president’s budget proposes over a half billion (dollars) in cooperative conservation programs …

One that … we created (is) based on one that Gov. Bush created in Texas. We actually have two similar programs, so you might see it referred to in a couple of different ways — the Private Stewardship Grant Program and the Land Owner Incentive Program — and together, I think, we refer to them as the Species Protection Partnership Program. Both projects together are designed to voluntarily enhance habitat for endangered, threatened or at-risk species. Those are very exciting. These projects get people enthused about endangered species. And as we all know, enthusiasm is not the way landowners usually react to finding out they have endangered species on their property.

HCN: Are there some specific projects you could steer me towards?

Norton: There’s … the mountain plover project we have out here in Colorado. It involves the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the Colorado Farm Bureau, the Audubon Society, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Mountain plovers like to nest in plowed ground, and obviously, that is hazardous to their health when tractors start coming through. But as long as you don’t disturb the nest, the plovers continue to like that habitat, even as it’s cultivated.

So, the agreement is that farmers call in 72 hours before they start farming or plow a field. The Audubon Society or another partner sends out a biologist to find the nesting spots, and marks those. Then, when the farmer goes out to plow, he avoids 10 feet around those sites. That protects the birds, allows the farmer to earn a livelihood, and works well for all the partners. The biologists are monitoring it to make sure it works for the plover, but the initial indications have been very good.

HCN: What causes some partnerships to work, and some to fail? For instance, the Bitterroot grizzly bear reintroduction project that was duked out with all sorts of parties in Idaho and Montana — It seemed like all the Four C’s were in line, but the Interior Department struck it down.

Norton: Predators make it much more difficult to find consensus. It’s a lot easier to agree about birds and plants than about animals that endanger people and livestock … We’re learning with our experience with wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming how difficult it is to deal with the major predators. Hopefully, we will be able to learn from that experience. We’ve had to tell Wyoming that their regulatory programs are not sufficient to take the wolves off the endangered list.

HCN: A project that sparked a lot of debate here in Colorado is the Roan Plateau. In 2001, the Roan was identified by President Bush as one of the top 10 priority areas for energy development. As the management plan was being debated … all five city councils in the county, environmental groups, hunting organizations and ranchers endorsed Alternative F. (Alternative F would have allowed energy companies to drill along the base of the plateau, but not on top; it also would have established 22,000 acres of wilderness study areas.) But Alternative F was eliminated as an option by Interior. What happened with Alternative F, and where does the Roan Plateau project stand right now?

Norton: That project is currently being internally analyzed, and we are looking at options for that, and we anticipate that soon we can come out with some alternatives that allow the project to move forward and satisfy local needs.

HCN: By the BLM’s own estimates, 40 percent of the plateau’s public acreage is already open to energy development. What do you anticipate the increase will be?

Norton: Wait and see … Now, you have to remember that it was a petroleum reserve.

HCN: Yes, it was oil shale in the late ’70s — but that industry came and went pretty quickly, leaving that community busted. That’s why the public process has been so involved. How will that be accounted for in these upcoming decisions?

Norton: It really is premature for us to be talking about how this is going to turn out. But on the energy development front, we have worked with several conservation organizations, and brought together CEOs of energy companies and land managers to talk about "best management practices" — about how to balance the energy needs with habitat protection and other environmental aspects of energy development. These are applicable to any BLM management, not just the Roan Plateau.

HCN: Has energy development moved to the forefront of the Interior’s priorities?

Norton: No, we have multiple-use responsibilities. We do have serious energy needs for the country. We are aware that natural gas is especially in demand because of its air quality benefits. Ninety percent of new power plants have been natural gas powered. We want the natural gas because it’s beneficial, and we need someplace to get it. We work within that reality.

Our process is a land-use planning process. We have to look at each individual area to see what makes sense for that area. We look at areas that are appropriate for recreation, wildlife, different areas that may be appropriate for energy activities. We ideally balance all of those things. Our responsibility for BLM lands is multiple-use, meaning a variety of needs and uses.

HCN: So what happened in Utah with your settlement (with then-Gov. Mike Leavitt) that stripped 2.6 million acres of "wilderness inventory areas" of wilderness protection, and opened them up to energy development? The public identifies wilderness inventory areas — it doesn’t fit into the Four C’s doctrine?

Norton: First of all, we start with the legal reality that Congress reserved for itself the right to create wilderness areas. We think that it is appropriate to look at preserving natural areas as one aspect of our land-use planning process: We looked at some (areas in Utah) that are adjacent to existing oil and gas activities, that are not visible from recreation use areas, that don’t have exceptional values, and have made those available for leasing. We have looked at other areas and decided they should not be available for oil and gas leasing. And so our local land managers have been looking at each individual area, and, through the public involvement process, (are) deciding what’s appropriate.

HCN: After two years of work, volunteer members of the Owyhee Initiative developed a proposal to protect 510,000 acres of wilderness. The process really brought together ranchers and environmentalists. Are you going to support the proposal if they bring it to you?

Norton: The only thing I’ve seen so far are news articles, but I find it really encouraging. I think getting people of different views together on a local level to hash out how wilderness should be designated is the right way to do it. This is the type of process I strongly support ...

Frankly, as I sit here in Colorado, I reminisce about my days here working with Sen. Hank Brown on wilderness legislation … By a lot of painstaking work, lots of people being involved and evaluating each individual location, we reached a broad consensus that allowed wilderness designations to occur throughout Colorado.

HCN: In the 1980s, you worked for the Mountain States Legal Foundation under James Watt, and later you worked under him in the Interior Department. His outspoken agenda was, "Mine more, drill more, cut more timber." Concerning the current administration’s policies, he’s been quoted as saying, "Twenty years later, it sounds as if they’ve just dusted off the old work." Is this true, and if not, how is your agenda different than James Watt’s?

Norton: What’s near and dear to my heart is cooperative conservation. I believe strongly that we need to get beyond rhetoric — beyond industry and environmentalists fighting with each other — and seriously solve problems. I think the greatest challenge in environmentalism, and the most rewarding challenge, is trying to figure out how humans can meet their needs while protecting the environment. Human beings are going to be relying on natural resources for a long time … If you just sit back and criticize any use of resources, that’s forgetting that you need to find the resources for humanity.

Editor's Note: For the full transcript of HCN’s interview with Gale Norton, visit (HCN, 5/24/04: The Complete Gale Norton Interview). HCN is particularly interested in hearing from readers who have on-the-ground experiences with the successes and failures of Gale Norton's four-C's of cooperative conservation. Drop us an email at editor@hcn.org with Gale Norton in the subject line.

The interviewer is a former HCN intern who now reports for the Douglas County News-Press in Castle Rock, Colorado.