Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, NM)

New Mexicans Divided Over Interior Nominee.

Byline: Tania Soussan Journal Staff Writer

Gale Norton, a former Colorado attorney general known as an advocate of private property rights and expanded uses of public lands, will loom large over a landscape of thorny New Mexico issues if confirmed as the nation's next Interior secretary.

Among them could be decisions on the endangered Mexican gray wolf down in the Gila country, control of water along the middle Rio Grande and the future of oil and gas drilling on the nearly 13 million acres of Bureau of Land Management property overseen by the Department of the Interior.

With Senate hearings on her nomination to begin this week, New Mexicans are deeply divided on whether Norton would be good or bad for the state.

Sally Rodgers, longtime environmental activist from Santa Fe, said Norton "would be an absolute unmitigated disaster."

Erik Ness of the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau said she would be more "like a breath of freedom blowing across the West."

Norton, now 46, began her career as a lawyer for the conservative-minded Mountain States Legal Foundation, working for James Watt.

Watt went on to become a firebrand Interior secretary under President Reagan and the bane of environmentalists. Some New Mexico observers fear Norton, as the head of Interior, would to some extent carry on Watt's anti-environmental agenda, and the Sierra Club has dubbed her "James Watt in a skirt."

Norton has said it is unfair to compare her with Watt because she has developed a different style since working for him 20 years ago.

Both critics and supporters predict she would likely give more weight to private property rights in cases involving endangered species and habitat protection, exercise less federal control and defer more to states on water use and allow more drilling for oil and gas on public land.

In 1998 testimony before Congress, she said the government must do a better job of balancing "societal needs" with environmental protection.

A healthy environment is important, but "we also need a productive society that fulfills social and economic needs ," she said.

The comments frame a familiar debate in New Mexico, where ranchers and farmers, loggers and miners often argue that their economic needs and heritages should have at least equal weight in decisions on protecting endangered species habitat and undeveloped lands. …

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