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Heading enviro group, Norton champions ideas she pushed at Interior

DENVER -- It's been nearly seven years since former Secretary Gale Norton left the helm of the Interior Department, but she's still pursuing some of the same ideas -- like "cooperative conservation" -- that defined her tenure in the George W. Bush administration.

Back home in Colorado, Norton now juggles a mix of roles that includes running her own consulting firm, leading a conservative environmental group and serving on several boards.

"I've been focused on how you can protect the environment without having too much government intrusion and government mandating control of people's lives. I worked on that 30 years ago when I was a national fellow at the Hoover Institution, and I have been concerned about it ever since," Norton, 58, told Greenwire in an interview this week.

These days that means channeling her efforts into the Conservation Leadership Council, a fledgling environmental group established last year in an effort to promote the conservative ideal of limited government while still pursuing environmental protections.

Norton noted the group allows her to continue pushing cooperative conservation, a concept she fostered during her tenure at the Interior Department.

"The essence of cooperative conservation is having people from a variety of perspectives and backgrounds sit down and find their common values and reach solutions that can be best for everyone," Norton said, adding that a 2005 conference based on those ideas remains a highlight of her career.

"There are many great examples of cooperative conservation, or market-orientated environmental protection. Through the Conservation Leadership Council we can spread the word on those successes and help formulate some fresh ideas," she added. The CLC held its first conference in Washington, D.C., earlier this month (E&ENews PM, Jan. 8).

Norton acknowledged the difficultly of pursuing any legislation amid congressional gridlock: "I think we are at a recent pinnacle of partisanship. ... My perception is it's worse now than at any time it has been in the last 25 years at least," she said. The CLC will largely focus on ideas that can be executed at the state and local level, she added.

"Oil and gas development is a great example. One of our proposals focuses on oil and gas developers compensating for the impact on wildlife habitat by paying nearby farmers and ranchers to enhance habitat on their property," Norton said. "That is a creative way to have both energy development and preserve and enhance wildlife habitat. But it also helps with the farming and ranching community being able to stay in business so we maintain that open space."

In addition to the CLC, Norton owns Norton Regulatory Strategies, which largely focuses on federal issues.

"I have a lot of issues on which I have opinions and plan to be doing some more in the future," said Norton, who speaks for a fee on topics like the federal budget.

Norton also serves on the external advisory group at the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute, a joint effort of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

"I think what I bring to it is some real-world experience," said Norton, who also served two terms as Colorado's attorney general in the 1990s.

Norton worked as general counsel for Royal Dutch Shell Unconventional Oil for three years after leaving office, focusing on oil shale- and oil sands-related projects in Colorado and Alberta.

She faced a lengthy Interior Department internal probe over whether she used her office to grant Royal Dutch Shell PLC shale leases before accepting a post there but was found in 2010 not to have violated any rules. At the time, she called the inspector general's review a waste of "millions in taxpayer dollars" (E&ENews PM, Dec. 13, 2010).

Norton said when it comes to renewable energy, many researchers don't recognize the "serious obstacles" to building projects.

"They just assume that everyone wants to see renewable energy so it will be an easy road. But that's not the case," she said. "When it's in somebody's backyard, it's an industrial facility and people respond to it in the same way that they are concerned about other types of energy or manufacturing facilities. And so I think I've helped educate about the realities of environmental analysis, the Endangered Species Act, land-use planning. The many kinds of things one needs to consider in going from the drawing board to a real facility."

Backing Gregoire for Interior

Colorado will host statewide elections in 2014 for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general as well as a Senate contest in which Sen. Mark Udall (D) plans to seek re-election, but Norton said she has no plans to return to politics.

"Running for office is a huge time commitment," said Norton, who also serves as a senior adviser to Clean Range Ventures, a venture capital firm, and sits on the Wisconsin-based American Transmission Co.'s board of directors. Norton sought the Republican Senate nomination in 1996 but lost to then-Rep. Wayne Allard (R), who went on to win the seat.

"I appreciate the opportunity I've had to meet people all across Colorado. I appreciate the opportunity to serve in Washington, but I'm enjoying what I'm doing right now," she said.

But the former secretary does have thoughts about a potential replacement for fellow Coloradoan and current Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who announced Wednesday he will step down in March: former Washington state Gov. Christine Gregoire (D).

"She's someone who has a lot of common sense, as well as being a very good lawyer and has a great deal of understanding of environmental issues. She's someone I know and I think very highly of," said Norton, who worked with Gregoire in the 1990s when both served as state attorneys general.

Gregoire, who has also been rumored as a potential successor to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, would be only the second woman, after Norton, to serve in the Interior post.

"For anyone coming in, it's a very diverse set of responsibilities at the Department of the Interior with everything from endangered species to Indian schools. I would urge someone to listen to the terrific career people at the department and learn from them, as well as get out and talk to people around the country who are affected by Interior's policies," Norton said.

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