The Complete Gale Norton Interview

  Full transcript of the HCN Interview with Gale Norton, along with Kit Kimball, communications officer with the Interior Department, and Matt Kales of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The concise interview is located at (HCN, 5/24/04: A champion of 'cooperative conservation': Interior Secretary Gale Norton)

Editor's Note: 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.

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 in cooperative conservation programs. Those are a combination of existing programs, like partners for Fish and Wildlife; it has been around since the 1980s. We have Fish and Wildlife people who provide technical assistance to farmers and other landowners. We work with them to provide funding for on-the-ground conservation projects that very often include wetland conservation , but could be a variety of different types of habitat enhancement. We provide some funding; they provide some funding as well. I’ve visited areas where we have the landowner, the Department of Agriculture, including the local extension office, local university biology professors and citizens’ groups all involved in wetlands restoration projects.

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

Norton: We’ll have to give you some Colorado examples, um…

Kales: There’s the San Luis Valley Ecosystems project that typifies the partnerships program. These are wetlands restorations and maintenance programs on private lands, and they’re for migratory waterfowl. And they are basically teeing off of existing wildlife refuge programs at the complex down in Alamosa/Monte Vista. Sandhill cranes are an endangered species we are focused on, but it has protected all sorts of waterfowl.

HCN: Are you working with the San Luis Ecosystems council, or is it generally a relationship between private landowners and the government?

Kales: In the general sense, the San Luis project has been a model operation between the federal government and private landowners. I’ll get back to you on the details of the groups involved. But some of the smaller land trusts in the San Luis Valley have taken part in the program. But the initial thrust starts when private landowners contact the Fish and Wildlife Service, and start a discussion. They say, “We have endangered species on our land and we want help.” The key is, they are voluntary, not mandatory.

HCN: These programs are described as using government to remove barriers to citizen participation, to empower themselves to take care of their community. Where else is this in action in Western projects in the works right now?

Norton: One that is going on is a different program we created, 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. Maybe we should have called them by the same name and called the federal side and state side, because the main difference is through the landowner incentive program, we work with the states and they run the programs.

Through the Private Stewardship Grants, we operate directly through the Fish and Wildlife Service. 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. Through this project, we are able to work on all types of habitat enhancement, including one for the Gunnison Sage Grouse.

I was just at a site in Alabama that is a conservation bank for the gopher tortoise. They are relocating some of the tortoises there to get them away from development areas and provide an ideal habitat for them. The developers, if they decide to move a tortoise, have to pay the long-term costs for enhancing the areas that take care of the tortoise, and it gives us the opportunity to manage an area that is going to be protected. So, we provided a private stewardship grant to further that effort.

I was at another site in Long Island, New York. It’s a beachfront area and endangered terns nest there, right out on the beach. If you told the people with this great beachfront property that they wouldn’t be able to use it because terns nest there, they probably wouldn’t be too happy. Instead, we worked with local communities, the Nature Conservancy and birdwatchers to locate areas where birds are nesting. People have now heard about the birds, people are enthusiastic about the community effort to protect the birds, and they are willing to fence off areas while the birds are nesting and help watch out for them. So, we’ve really seen a lot of community enthusiasm for protecting the birds. That’s the kind of thing we’d like to see as a response to endangered species. We think it’s a great tool to add to our toolbox of our endangered species program.

HCN: How are the conservation banks taking shape here, out West?

Norton: Those programs are really in their infancy. We really only have a few examples across the country of active conservation banks. Obviously, it depends on the species and particular situation. But if it is something that is biologically appropriate, it becomes a win-win situation.

HCN: What about working within the Four C’s and large swatches of land out West? Are there any programs where you could take a look, and see this is your philosophy in action?

Norton: Let’s see what the best examples are -- some Colorado examples.

HCN: Well, we cover the West all the way to California, so you don’t have to restrict it to our state.

Norton: The Las Cienegas area in southern Arizona is a place where ranchers and environmentalists have come together to find common ground. It’s still a working landscape; they’ve done a lot to restore habitat to its natural setting. So, that has been a very efficient cooperative approach.

Um…

The High Plains Partnership covers an 11-state region -- a little further east than you all go -- but it protects a whole variety of the prairie habitat. And there are a number of endangered species involved, and a lot of different organizations involved, and we’ve been providing funding as one of the partners.

HCN: Was that initiated during the Clinton Administration?

Norton: I don’t know when it started. It’s something that was in existence, and we started providing additional funding when I heard about it.

There’s also the mountain plover project we have out here in Colorado. It involves the Colorado Division of Wildlife, Colorado Farm Bureau, Audubon Society, and U. S. Geological Survey and 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. That was something that we just launched the agreement on last fall.

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 (HCN, 7/30/01).

Norton: The big concern there was the effect of grizzlies on the … [Cell phone rings.] With predators, there are many challenging issues. 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.

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. Especially with the predators, one of the things that gets these programs going on a local level is for our land management agencies to build partnerships with surrounding communities and landowners. Each one has their own programs whereby local managers can compete for grants, and each project would enhance some part of the environment on or adjacent to federal lands. Most of the cooperative conservation plans include private and public money, so it allows us to leverage our funding to accomplish even more than we could with federal dollars alone.

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 (HCN, 9/1/03). 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, and anticipate that soon we can come out with some alternatives that allow the project to move forward and satisfy local needs.

HCN: Beyond the alternatives the public commented on in the opening two years of the process?

Norton: There have been a lot of people looking internally at what management options make sense, and we will be able to announce soon what those are.

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 of that 40 percent?

Norton: Wait and see.

HCN: When can we expect that decision?

Norton: I think the recommendations will come out within another month or so.

HCN: So how have the Four C’s played into energy development on the plateau? In the beginning, the process was open, and now it’s moved internal?

Norton: We have to, as the federal government, examine the info that’s been presented to us and that’s the stage we’re in right 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 mangers to talk about BEST MANAGEMENT PRACTICES -- about how to balance the energy needs with habitat protection and other environmental aspects of energy development. We found that to be a very helpful process, and the BLM has been working on best management practices for a while now.

These are applicable to any BLM management, no just the Roan Plateau.

[NORTON WALKS ME THROUGH THE POWER POINT PRINTOUT, LITTERALLY READING EACH PAGE.]

[SOMEWHERE IN THERE I INTERUPT]

HCN: So when the Interior (Department) is looking at energy development, what role is industry playing in developing these best practices, specifically, improved technology for energy development? Can you describe to me any of these technologies that may be implemented on the Roan Plateau?

Norton: Again, you’re asking about a specific area, and I can’t really comment about the specific area, but I can tell you what’s happening generally across the West.

HCN: Well, involving a large chunk of land out here, there was a suit that came out in Utah, and the Interior settled by stripping 2.6 million acres of wilderness protection from wilderness inventory areas and opened them up to energy development. Is this part of the Best Use Practices, and how did the decision come about?

Norton: Let’s first finish running though this. [BACK TO POWER POINT PRINT-OUT]

HCN: Obviously, Interior has done a lot of work on the Best Use Practices. 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: 90 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 creating wilderness areas. We think that it is appropriate to look at preserving natural areas as one aspect of our land-use planning process. As we go through our plans, we will look at the qualities of different areas to determine what makes the most sense. In some of the Utah areas, we looked at some that are adjacent to existing oil and gas activities that are not visible from recreational 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, deciding what’s appropriate.

HCN: So, on one hand we have the public designating wilderness inventory areas. It doesn’t fit into the Four C’s doctrine because of congressional oversight?

Norton: It’s a question of [pause] how you consider things in the land-use planning process. We view it as appropriate to take everybody’s opinions and put them on equal footing into the land-use planning process. There are others who think that we shouldn’t put all those values on equal footing. From a statutory perspective, the decision about wilderness is one that Congress should decide. And frankly, as I sit here in Colorado, I reminisce about my days here working with Sen. Hank Brown on wilderness legislation for Colorado. What you have to do is get all the sides involved to decide what should be wilderness and what places don’t fit. 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. So, legislation can be passed if you have that type of open process, and that’s part of my experience that drives the Four C’s philosophy. We got wilderness areas designated in most of the Forest Service areas in Colorado, or a lot of them anyway, coming out of that process.

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 (HCN, 12/8/03). 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. They’re doing the same thing we did here in Colorado. 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.

Kales: We should probably wrap it up in the next ten minutes.

HCN: OK. Well, sticking with wilderness, in April last year, the Interior announced that it would no longer seek additional wilderness designations on public lands. Why was that move necessary, and what was the rationale behind it?

Norton: Congress set up a process that said: BLM will do an inventory of its lands, send recommendations to Congress, and establish a deadline. BLM worked across the board and decided what areas were in, and what were out. That was a major process when I was at the Interior in the 1980s. Those recommendations moved forward. The president sent to Congress a set of recommendations saying these areas should be wilderness, and these areas are not suitable for wilderness. All of those areas, suitable or not, are now being managed to not imperil their wilderness values, so that Congress can make that decision. Congress, for the most part, has not acted on those recommendations. We urge Congress to examine those recommendations and act. I’d like to see Congress designate more wilderness areas.

Congress has not acted on all the proposals we sent before. It’s also a question of statutory interpretation; it basically assigns Interior to go through that whole process, not to keep on doing it (designating wilderness).

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. There are wonderful advancements in technology that help us with that, and there are ways in which our laws can operate more effectively. Local innovation and initiative can help us better understand how to protect our environment.

I spend a year at the Hoover Institute at Stanford, researching market approaches to air pollution control. This was in the early 1980s, before emissions trading and cap and trade systems were widespread. That’s a way in which we can get better air quality for the money we spend. It makes lots of sense, and we’ve seen success where that has been used --where the air quality benefits have been better than predicted. That’s the kind of innovation that I’d like to see more of: Real struggle to solve real world problems.

I think that our cooperative conservation approaches get people to sit down and grapple with problem solving. People are solving real problems, and that’s what I want to see. Our landowner incentive program is another example of that. Those are what I’m all about, finding ways to meet our needs.

Let me give you another example of that: In the West, we are dealing with drought all over. My department launched Water 2025 as an initiative to encourage states, local governments, farmers and all involved with water issues to maintain the current focus after the rain starts falling again. Too often in the West, everybody focuses on water during drought and then forgets about it, so that the next drought comes without solutions in place. There are things we can do to find widespread agreement. If you have an existing water facility, right now the laws are written so that facility serves only one area. But if we can have water stored for a number of different users, we don’t have to build several different facilities. By having better agreements about use, we can be more efficient in our use of water.

Desalinization is a potentially important tool for the West; water marketing is something that can provide water for cities. If we have improvements in irrigation efficiencies in many parts of the West, they are still using the same techniques for irrigating farmland that the Spanish missions used in the 1600s. We can make irrigation use more efficient it frees up water for cities. We’re also encouraging programs like what Las Vegas is doing. We don’t have a direct role in telling city water authorities to do anything, but we are getting the word out that Las Vegas is paying people to rip out their bluegrass lawns and replace them with xeriscaping. And that is saving something like 50 gallons of water for every square foot of lawn replaced. So that, to me, seems like the kind of innovation we need to be talking about all over the West. It’s problem-solving.

HCN: So in contrast to Mr. Watts' blunt opinions, you see many more technologically advanced and cooperative options to meet the needs of the country.

Norton: Human beings are going to be relying on natural resources for a long time. Whatever we see as today’s solution for environmental problems, there may be somebody objecting to those things in the future. We have to think about wind energy. We’re working to enhance wind energy on public lands. That’s something we view as beneficial, but even with something everybody says is good for the environment, we still have trouble finding sites for those facilities. We have to look at getting the mechanisms in place to really solve problems. If you just sit back and criticize any use of resources, that’s forgetting that you need to find the resources for humanity. Very often, from the U.S. perspective, we draw resources from places that are not as concerned about protecting the environment, and so overall it is worse for the environment than doing some things here with very high standards of protection. So we have to look at the big picture of meeting human needs and protecting the environment at the same time.

by ALEX PASQUARIELLO

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