Washington Interior Secretary Gale Norton resigned Friday after five years of guiding the Bush administration's initiative to open government lands in the West to more oil and gas drilling, logging, grazing and commercial recreation.
Norton, the first woman to lead the Interior Department in its 157-year history, told President Bush in a letter she intends to leave at the end of March, saying she hoped to eventually return to the mountains of the West.
"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 the two-page resignation letter.
She leaves at a time when a major lobbying scandal involving Indian gaming licenses that required her consent looms over her agency, but there has never been any suggestion of wrongdoing on her part.
Norton is the first member of Bush's Cabinet to leave in well over a year - when there was a substantial makeover in agency chiefs immediately following the president's 2004 re-election to a second term.
A day shy of her 52nd birthday, Norton emphasized in her resignation letter to Bush and in her remarks to reporters that her reasons for leaving were entirely personal. She said she hadn't done any job-searching, adding she wanted to spend more time with her husband, John, and take time for recreational pursuits like skiing.
"This is really a question of accomplishing the goals that I set out to do here and wanting to return to having a private life again," she said.
In her letter to Bush, she recalled releasing into the wild an injured bald eagle that had been nursed back to health by a local wildlife group.
"It was amazing to hold the eagle in my arms, then launch him skyward and see his mighty wings carry him back to freedom," she said.
Norton said she, too, sought freedom.
"I'm looking forward to visiting a national park without holding a press conference there," she said. "I'm looking forward to enjoying the wide-open spaces again."
Her communications director, Tina Kreisher, said Norton had decided she wanted to step down as interior secretary last year, just before hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf coast.
"When Katrina and Rita hit, she felt a responsibility to stay on," Kreisher said.
Bush called Norton, a former Colorado attorney general, a strong advocate for "the wise use and protection of our nation's natural resources."
As one of the architects of Bush's energy policy, Norton eased regulations to speed approval of oil and gas drilling permits.
In her first three years, the pace of drilling permits issued by Interior's Bureau of Land Management rose 70 percent. She also was the administration's biggest advocate for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska's North Slope to oil drilling, areas considered sensitive for caribou and other wildlife.
"We have improved the ways we are protecting wildlife in ways that energy development is responsible," she said Friday. "We spent billions of dollars in improving wildlife habitat and otherwise restoring the environment.