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.
Norton, who turns 52 today, told reporters that the investigations were unrelated to her decision to leave, which she said was entirely personal. Her resignation letter was dated Thursday, and her exit becomes effective at month's end. But, she said, administration officials have known for some time that she was planning to depart.
The Interior secretary said she had remained after hurricanes battered the Gulf Coast last year, crippling the region's oil business and sparking nationwide shortages. "Really, I might have made the decision to leave earlier had it not been for things like the hurricanes ... that took so much of our time and effort," she said.
On Friday, Norton dismissed any potential links among herself, her agency and Abramoff, saying she had no knowledge of dealings between Griles and the lobbyist that have drawn the scrutiny of investigators.
"I'm very confident that the decisions made at the Department of Interior have been based on the facts and the law and have been appropriate," she said. Norton called Griles a "great asset of this department.... What I saw of his conduct was above board and very conscientious."
Norton, a former Colorado attorney general who previously had represented mining, timber and oil companies, said she did not have a new job lined up. She has been mentioned as a potential successor to Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a term-limited Republican, although Norton said Friday she was more interested in the private sector.
President Bush, in a written statement, called Norton a "strong advocate for the wise use and protection of our nation's natural resources."
"She served the nation well with her vision for cooperative conservation, protection and improvement of our national parks and public lands and environmentally responsible energy development on public lands and waters," Bush said.
A number of environmental groups, however, 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.
Some critics have compared Norton's policies to those of James G. Watt, her onetime mentor who was a controversial Interior secretary under President Reagan. Yet Norton kept a lower profile than the outspoken Watt.
She embraced a philosophy she called cooperative conservation, designed to forge a less-antagonistic relationship with regulated industries. She had her supporters among environmental groups, notably the Nature Conservancy.
Steven J. McCormick, president and chief executive of the group, said Norton's methods "brought new investments in private land conservation and fostered numerous productive public-private partnerships to conserve ecologically important landscapes across the country."
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 under Norton 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.
But she received praise from hunting and other outdoor organizations. Snowmobilers were pleased, for example, when 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.
Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist, made repeated efforts to influence Norton, because she wielded authority over his Indian tribal clients seeking approval for gambling and other land use projects.
One link between Abramoff and the Interior Department was Italia Federici, who heads the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy -- founded by Norton before she came to Washington. Another was Griles, a former coal mining official and consultant who was offered a private sector job by Abramoff.
E-mails obtained by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee showed that Federici tried to arrange a meeting in 2001 for one of Abramoff's clients, Coushatta tribal chairman Lovelin Poncho, with Norton. Eventually, Poncho did meet with Norton at a fundraising dinner for the Republican environmental group. Abramoff was closely involved in the planning of the dinner.
Many of Abramoff's tribal clients agreed later to be trustees of Federici's group, at a cost of $50,000 each. Among the advantages of a trusteeship were invitations to the group's events, attended by Interior Department officials, including Norton. Federici told the Senate panel there was no quid pro quo.
Norton referred Friday to earlier comments by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has spearheaded the Senate inquiry into Abramoff's dealings with Indian tribes:
"He specifically said there was no evidence that I had any knowledge about any of the activities he was investigating," Norton said.
Times staff writer Julie Cart in Los Angeles contributed to this report.