WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Gale Norton is resigning after serving more than five years as the Bush administration's point woman on natural resources, the department said Friday.
“Now I feel it is time for me to leave this mountain you gave me to climb, catch my breath, then set my sights on new goals to achieve in the private sector,” she said in a letter to President Bush. “Hopefully, my husband and I will end up closer to the mountains we love in the West.”
Bush called Norton a strong advocate for “the wise use and protection of our nation’s natural resources.”
“When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region, she played a leading role in my administration’s efforts to restore badly needed offshore energy production,” he said.
Norton is a former Colorado attorney general who guided the Bush administration’s initiative to open Western government lands to more oil and gas drilling. She is to formally step down at the end of March.
“There will never be a perfect time to leave,” she added. “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.”
Norton is one of four original Bush Cabinet members. The others are Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
A source told the Denver Post that Norton, who calls Denver her home, was not leaving because of any problems. “She wants to go home for a while,” the source said.
Logging, mining background
Norton, who turns 52 on Saturday, is the first woman to hold the Interior job. Her background work for logging and mining interests made her a controversial cabinet nominee, and environmentalists labeled her as “James Watt in a skirt,” referring to the Reagan administration Interior secretary who once worked with Norton at the Mountain States Legal Foundation.
Norton responded with a mantra about her “Four C’s” for land stewardship: “consultation, cooperation, communication — all in the service of conservation.”
Under her watch, the Interior Department stripped protection from areas previously managed as wilderness, opened forests to increased logging, reopened Yellowstone National Park to snowmobiles and urged federal land managers to speed up drilling for gas on public land.
Norton called the work “cooperative conservation,” which included partnerships with landowners and developers as opposed to regulations.
She also was the administration’s biggest advocate for opening part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska’s North Slope to oil drilling. Attempts to get Congress to do that have so far failed.
Before joining the administration, she was one of the negotiators of a $206 billion national tobacco settlement in a suit by Colorado and 45 other states. She was Colorado’s attorney general from 1991 to 1999.
After working for the Agriculture Department for a year, Norton was named an assistant solicitor in the Interior Department in 1985, focusing on conservation and wildlife issues.
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Native Americans and Abramoff
She also had a mixed record with American Indian tribes. As secretary, she inherited a huge lawsuit over the department's alleged mismanagement of Indian trust funds, which are supposed to compensate individual Indians for the use of their land. The class-action lawsuit seeks potentially billions of dollars in compensation over botched record-keeping and missing records.
And last year, Norton's name came up during an investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was accused of bilking Indian tribes out of millions of dollars while they sought favorable Interior Department decisions on casinos.
The Senate Indian Affairs Committee uncovered e-mails suggesting a one-time Norton associate, Italia Federici, tried to act as a conduit for Abramoff, helping arrange meetings with Norton or her former top deputy and passing information back and forth.
Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, however, said he found no evidence that Norton had done anything wrong.
The Interior Department did not say who would be the interim secretary while the president chooses a nominee and the Senate weighs whether to confirm him or her.
The Associated Press and MSNBC.com's Miguel Llanos contributed to this report.