- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 19, 2006

Gale Norton’s legacy as Secretary of the Interior will not be a tale of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, but one of engaging citizens as environmental stewards. In her five-year tenure, which will end on March 31, Mrs. Norton has turned the virtuous idea of grass-roots conservation, which she has called “cooperative conservation,” into a workable reality and a blueprint for subsequent conservation policy. The initiative offers officials from city and county governments an active role in the policy-making process with federal officials. In determining land-use regulations, for instance, Bureau of Land Management officials would sit down with representatives from the local communities to decide how the land should be used.

Building interest in conservation for the people who use the land — be they farmers, ranchers, sportsmen or other outdoor enthusiasts — is essential to creating a lasting conservation effort, and Mrs. Norton’s policies are built on this foundation. Through a grant program, the department has encouraged and supported local conservation groups. “I think we have greatly advanced the idea of cooperative conservation,” Mrs. Norton told us. This effort is “unleashing the innovation and creativity of Americans to find new approaches in moving beyond environmental conflicts,” she added.

Under her leadership, 5 million acres of land — largely wetlands and forest habitats — and 10,000 miles of rivers and streams were restored. Her additions to the national park system include the creation of Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado and the expansion of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Mrs. Norton worked hard to increase the domestic energy supply. Although efforts to permit drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge stalled in the Senate, the department has made progress in developing other energy resources. Under Mrs. Norton, it issued ten times as many permits for wind and geothermal energy than it did during the second term of the Clinton administration, and half of America’s geothermal energy now comes from public land. Also, by increasing manpower while cutting some paperwork and bureaucracy, applications for drilling permits have been processed much more expeditiously.

The Healthy Forest Initiative is an example of one of Mrs. Norton’s policies that has been unfairly maligned and mischaracterized. The initiative, which thins forest vegetation that has become too dense in states like California, Arizona and Colorado that suffer catastrophic wildfires, is often criticized as granting more invasive timber rights to logging companies. Although the effect may take a few decades, this program should significantly reduce the number of forest fires.

Mrs. Norton’s most lasting contribution will be her demonstration that successful conservation goes hand-in-hand with the philosophy that local citizens are often the best stewards for America’s natural lands.

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