Most Corrupt Bush Appointees: Gale Norton


The Interior secretary says department links to an ethics scandal did not influence her decision. She was a big advocate of oil and gas drilling.

By Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger

LOS ANGELES TIMES, March 11, 2006, WASHINGTON -- Gale A. Norton, the Bush administration's leading advocate for expanding oil and gas drilling and other industrial interests in the West, resigned Friday after five years as secretary of the Interior Department.

Norton's departure ends a controversial tenure viewed as largely favorable to energy and mining interests at the expense, critics say, of environmentally sensitive areas and a tradition that used to give more weight to science than politics.

She is leaving amid a Washington ethics scandal that has touched her department: Multiple investigations are examining possible links between Norton's former deputy, J. Steven Griles, and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January to defrauding his clients and conspiracy to bribe members of Congress....

A number of environmental groups...applauded the news of Norton's departure.

"She really exemplified the revolving door between the Republicans, industry groups and anti-environmental groups," said Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity, which won numerous lawsuits against Norton's department for refusing to designate critical habitat for endangered species. "I expect that government scientists and decision-makers are clapping their hands under their desks."

Under Norton's leadership, some career employees at the Department of the Interior began referring to the western U.S. as "the OPEC states," reflecting the pressure they felt to approve oil and gas permits. during Norton's first three years as secretary, the number of drilling permits issued by the department's Bureau of Land Management soared 70% above the total approved by the Clinton administration.

She also was one of the administration's most fervent advocates for opening up the Arctic national Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration--a goal not yet achieved....

Throughout a 40-minute conference call Friday with reporters, Norton was adamant that she had performed her duties with the best interests of the environment at heart. Reading statistics as she shuffled through papers, the secretary took credit for restoring "millions of acres of land, over 10,000 miles of stream and shoreline" and for spending billions of dollars "improving wildlife habitat and otherwise restoring the environment."

But Norton's critics said her pro-industry actions reflected the priorities of a White House in which senior political advisors had aggressively injected themselves into agency policymaking.

During Bush's first term, for example, the administration created a special White House Office of Energy Permit Expediting, which placed calls to Interior field staffers pressing for approval of oil and gas deals that were viewed as moving too slowly.

During the 2002 election cycle, Karl Rove, the president's top political advisor, reminded Interior Department managers of the importance of farmers to the GOP vote in Oregon, where Republican Sen. Gordon H. Smith was running for reelection. Within months, Norton and officials from other Cabinet agencies approved a diversion of headwaters from the Klamath River to irrigate parched farms. Smith won reelection.

Today, environmentalists, Native American tribes and commercial fishermen blame that water diversion and others under Norton's tenure for a dramatic reduction in the salmon population in the Pacific Northwest.

The Interior Department also reduced the federal government's supervisory role over public lands. For example, the department canceled wilderness protection for 2.5 million acres in Utah and Colorado, much of which was later opened to oil and gas drilling.

Environmental groups contend that the department's Fish and Wildlife Service had voided over 16 million acres of critical habitat for species listed as threatened or endangered. Under Norton, the Interior Department took the position that habitat protection should be largely voluntary....

[In one of its most symbolic controversial actions,] the Interior Department reversed a ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park that was scheduled to take effect in 2003 and instead allowed increased usage.



By Bettina Boxall and Julie Cart

Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2006 -- Guidelines issued by Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton on Wednesday will make it easier for counties to lay claim to old trails and closed roads across federal lands in the West, including national parks in Southern California.

In one of her final actions before leaving her post next week, Norton issued a policy dealing with right-of-way claims under a Civil War-era law that county officials in several Western states have tried to use to circumvent federal land-use restrictions on motorized access.

Norton's memo gives Interior officials nationwide latitude to grant rights of way to counties and other claimants and even approve road construction and improvements....

Environmentalists said the secretary's guidelines amounted to an invitation to counties and other entities to claim everything from hiking trails to dry stream beds and start using them as roads.

"The barriers to [these] claims have been lowered to practically nothing," said Ted Zukoski, a Denver-based attorney with Earthjustice who was involved in a major court case on the matter. "The bar is so low that it has the effect of telling everyone: 'We're open for business. Make a claim."

© 2006 Los Angeles Times

"Most Corrupt Appointees" describes appointees shown on Most, not a ranking



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