Washington — Attempting to mollify critics who have attacked her as an anti-environment extremist, Interior Secretary nominee Gale Norton promised a Senate panel Thursday that she would make conservation and environmental protection her priority.
Appearing at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, she disassociated herself from her one-time mentor, conservative Reagan administration Interior Secretary James Watt, and promised to eliminate the deteriorating National Park System's nearly $5 billion backlog of neglected repairs within five years.
But the 46-year-old former Colorado attorney general also insisted that the federal government must cooperate with local landowners and ranching, mining and timbering interests in carrying out environmental and conservation policies.
She said she would seek a "collaborative" approach to allowing oil drilling on protected federal lands in Alaska.
Norton said current Interior Department policies and laws allowing presidents to protect wilderness areas by declaring them national monuments might have to be changed and suggested that ways should be found to accommodate snowmobiles in national parks, where those vehicles have mostly been banned.
"I will be candid in telling you that I am both a conservative and a conservationist," she said. "I see no conflict there. ... I intend to make the conservation of America's natural resources my top priority. Using consultation and collaboration, forging partnerships with interested citizens, we can succeed in our effort to conserve America's most precious places."
Environmental and conservation groups led by the Sierra Club have been waging an all-out campaign against Norton's confirmation. Barred from testifying at the hearing, they have used television commercials and newspaper ads to attack Norton as an extremist, noting she formerly worked for Watt and his Mountain States Legal Foundation and that she represented companies accused of polluting and exploiting federally protected lands.
"I don't know everything that Jim Watt thinks about issues," she said. "I have only really spoken with him once in the last 10 years. I am not in constant communication with him."
She said she was terminating an annuity she received from the Mountain States Legal Foundation so she could sever all ties to the organization.