- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2006

Gale A. Norton, the first female secretary of the interior, yesterday announced she is stepping down from her Cabinet post after more than five years to pursue private-sector opportunities.

Mrs. Norton was the White House’s key official on the environment and natural resources and played a prominent role in opening additional government lands in the West for oil and gas drilling.

“There will never be a perfect time to leave. There is always more work to do. My leaving now gives you the opportunity to appoint a new secretary to accomplish the goals you set for the rest of your administration,” said Mrs. Norton, who is celebrating her 52nd birthday today.

President Bush, in accepting her departure, praised Mrs. Norton for “her vision for cooperative conservation, protection and improvement of our national parks and public lands.”

“When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region, she played a leading role in … efforts to restore badly needed offshore energy production to avoid further supply disruption and higher energy costs for consumers.”

A source close to Mrs. Norton, who served as Colorado’s Attorney General from 1991 to 1999, told the Denver Post that she maintains good relations with the administration but longs to return to her native state.

The White House gave no indication of a possible replacement for Mrs. Norton, who officially resigns at the end of the month.

Environmentalists criticized Mrs. Norton for exploiting public lands, especially for her effort to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for energy exploration, and for her purported ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was convicted of bribing public officials.

“As interior secretary, Gale Norton was an unpopular symbol of unpopular policies,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. “Americans do not believe their public lands should be sold to the highest bidder, and they don’t believe in privatizing their parks, forests, monuments.”

Mrs. Norton also was criticized for her ties to Abramoff’s lobbying firm. In the 1990s, Grover G. Norquist and Mrs. Norton founded the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA). Abramoff directed his tribal casino clients to donate $225,000 to CREA.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee made public e-mail suggesting a former Norton associate, Italia Federici, had attempted to arrange meetings between Mrs. Norton and Abramoff’s clients. However, committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said he found no evidence Mrs. Norton had done anything wrong.

During Mrs. Norton’s 2001 confirmation hearings, critics called her “James Watt in a skirt” in reference to the unpopular Reagan administration interior secretary. Mrs. Norton and Mr. Watt previously worked together at the Mountain States Legal Foundation.

Mrs. Norton described her environmental philosophy as the “Four Cs” for “consultation, cooperation, communication — all in the service of conservation.”

She has been a popular figure in Republican circles for several decades. Before serving as her home state’s attorney general, she was an assistant solicitor in the Interior Department. In 1996 Mrs. Norton ran, but lost, in Colorado’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.

In 2004, she was rumored as a possible replacement candidate for retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Colorado Republican.

After her departure, only three original Cabinet members will remain from President Bush’s first term: Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao and Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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