U.S. Interior Secretary Norton
by Caren Bohan and Tom Doggett, Reuters
WASHINGTON - U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton resigned Friday after five years overseeing federal lands, a tenure that had many clashes with environmentalists.
Norton, 51, is the first woman to head the 156-year-old department and one of the original members of President Bush's cabinet. She previously served as Colorado's attorney general.
"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. Hopefully, my husband and I will end up closer to the mountains we love in the West," Norton wrote to the president.
Speaking to reporters by telephone, Norton later said her decision to leave had nothing to do with accusations that Steven Griles, her friend and the department's former No. 2, helped convicted Indian casino lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Norton also said she was not involved with any wrongdoing with Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to fraud charges in January and is cooperating with prosecutors in a corruption probe that could implicate top members of the Republican Party.
The interior department oversees Indian affairs.
In her resignation letter to Bush, Norton said she would be moving to the private sector at the end of March.
The Interior Department manages national parks, wildlife refuges and other federal lands that account for 1 out of every 5 acres in the United States.
Norton tried to streamline the permit process for energy companies to drill on federal lands, putting her at odds with many environmentalists, but was never able to convince Congress to allow drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Norton led the fight to give energy companies access to the refuge's potential 16 billion barrels of crude oil, a key part of the Bush administration's policy to boost domestic petroleum production and reduce America's reliance on foreign suppliers.
While Norton won praise from environmentalists for boosting the populations of grizzly bears and the bald eagle, she was also criticized for pushing development on public lands.
"Unfortunately, the past five years has been an era of unbridled opening of public lands for oil and gas drilling and other development at the expense of wildlife and conservation values," the National Wildlife Federation said.
Norton said she would not speculate on who Bush would nominate as his next interior secretary.
"I trust the Senate will move quickly on the confirmation of my successor," she said.
But with President Bush's approval rating among Americans near all-time lows and congressional elections eight months away, Senate Democrats are likely to use the confirmation hearings to slam the administration's environmental policies and its close ties to big oil companies.
In a statement, Bush said Norton "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 also praised Norton's efforts to help restore much-needed oil and natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico after it was disrupted by hurricanes last year.
Norton said she had no plans to run for public office. "I'm looking forward to visiting a national park without holding a press conference there," she told reporters.
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