Secretary Norton focuses on ESA revisions, survey of FWS scientists, 2006 budget request

Interior Secretary Gale Norton visits the OnPoint set and gives her thoughts on congressional effort to revise the Endangered Species Act and a recent controversial survey of Fish and Wildlife Service scientists. In the interview with E&E reporter Dan Berman and E&E Daily Editor Colin Sullivan, Norton also discusses aspects of the Bush administration's fiscal year 2006 budget request, including the push for revenue from oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, cuts in the Land and Water Conservation Fund and diverting proceeds from Nevada land sales.


Colin Sullivan: Hi, I'm Colin Sullivan. Welcome to OnPoint. Today we're joined by the secretary of the Interior Department, Gale Norton, and Dan Berman the Interior reporter for E&E Daily and Greenwire. Secretary Norton, thank you for being here.

Secretary Gale Norton: You're very welcome.

Colin Sullivan: I'd like to first start out with Endangered Species Act reform. There's a major effort under way on the Hill from the House resources chairman, Pombo, Senator Crapo and Senator Lincoln Chafee to form a sort of consensus this year on ESA reform. How aggressively will you be involved in that effort and what specifically would you like to see out of that bill?

Secretary Gale Norton: We have been, at this point, basically waiting to see what that group comes up with, as well as knowing that the Western Governors are also interested in that issue. There's a lot of discussion now. It's still at very early stages, trying to see what people are interested in looking at. We have been focusing on things like the Landowner Incentive Program that are ways of working cooperatively with landowners on endangered species recovery. It sort of gets out of the box a lot of endangered species issues and focuses on things that I think a lot of people can be enthusiastic about, trying to voluntarily restore habitat for endangered species.

Dan Berman: Well Madam Secretary, speaking of the endangered species recovery budget, the fiscal year 2006 request that was released last week has a $5.5 million decrease from last year for endangered species recovery. How do you expect the program to work if the administration is not funding the program?

Secretary Gale Norton: We have actually put funding into the things that we think are most effective and that includes the voluntary type efforts. We actually have a significant increase, far more than $5 million, I think it's about $15 million, in our Landowner Incentive Program that is designed to help with endangered species and keep at-risk species from becoming endangered. And so, if you look at our overall endangered species budgets and not just the narrow category of the past program categories you see that it is an increase for endangered species. We also work very closely with the states and we have been working to enhance the state wildlife programs that allow the states to deal with endangered species in a productive way as well.

Dan Berman: Well, as I recall, the overall endangered species budget is listed at $140 million, which is about a $3 million decrease again from last year, but I'm curious, some of these other, these other cooperative programs. Has there been any study or any real determination to show if they actually help recover species? I mean, are there good success stories with this and can we see more about the future?

Secretary Gale Norton: One of the great success stories is with the Aplomado falcon and that is a species that's found in Texas and the Southwest and the Peregrine Fund has shifted from, will not shifted away from peregrines, but has added Aplomado falcon as one of the species that they're working on. They've been working with landowners to get them to enhance habitat, to do things that would be helpful for the falcons. I've talked with some of their leaders. They're very enthused about the program and the results from that. I've seen, in the Long Island area for example, a grant that we gave out that deals with nesting habitat for least terns. They tend to nest right on the beachfront and people, ordinarily, I think would be very upset of the federal government came in and said, "You can't use the beach out in front of your house because there's a bird nesting out there and the federal government says you can't go out there." Instead, the local nature conservancy and towns have worked cooperatively, with a little bit of funding assistance from us, to really inform people about how important the birds are, what their patterns are and to get people to decide yes, it's a great idea to welcome the birds to their property and keep an area fenced off for awhile where the birds can nest. So it becomes, instead of a conflict situation, one that really captures people's enthusiasm for wildlife. We think that is an approach that holds a lot of promise. The biggest success story I think is on the sage grouse. We have worked with states, with cattle ranchers, with local communities all across the 11 Western states that are the habitat for the sage grouse and they have taken major efforts to conserve sage grouse. They were concerned that the sage grouse would be listed on the Endangered Species List. Our biologists believe that with the efforts that they're doing that would be enough to keep the sage grouse population from further declining. So we've got lots of efforts that are very cooperative ones and those are being enhanced in our budget.

Colin Sullivan: Since you brought up the biologists, there was a recent survey from the Union of Concerned Scientists of the Fish and Wildlife Service, some of the scientists, which found that a lot of the scientists at Fish and Wildlife Service believe that political concerns are trumping scientific concerns. I'd like to read you one response from the UCS survey. "I've never seen so many findings and recommendations by the field be turned around at the regional and Washington level. All that we can do at the field level is ensure that our administrative record is complete and hope we get sued by an environmental or conservation organization." How would you respond to that kind of concern from a biologist, a ground-level biologist, at the Fish and Wildlife Service?

Secretary Gale Norton: Well first of all we want to learn more about what the concerns were, because we do believe that science ought to be a basis for our decisionmaking. We want to see that things are handled appropriately. What we've seen in the past, sometimes, is that biologists essentially go into their offices and dream up what they think the species ought to have and then prescribe that, instead of working with people to see how you accommodate the needs of the species along with the needs of humans and, you know, with other resource kinds of concerns. A good example is on the Mississippi River, we have the pallid sturgeon that is a fish that lives decades and it reproduces very, very slowly. There had been a fight going on for 15 or 20 years between the Corps of Engineers and Fish and Wildlife Service biologists about what needed to be done for the species. It had revolved around the water levels and whether there was enough water flowing down for barge traffic and things like that. We finally got the biologists and the engineers to sit down together and have a couple of daylong conference to sit down and meet and talk. That was the first time they had really done that in many years and they found out that a lot of the concern was for shallow water habitat for the very young sturgeon. So by having some areas that were developed for shallow water habitat that was a way of getting outside the box and instead of having pure conflict, finding a way that all the needs could be accommodated. So that's a different way of operating, and I think that, you know, it's sometimes difficult to transition to a more cooperative problem solving kind of approach, but we think that's best in the long run.

Colin Sullivan: Are you saying that the Interior Department is going to investigate these concerns whether or not politics is trumping science in some of these decisions with listing and de-listing?

Secretary Gale Norton: Well I certainly want to hear from the people within our department and find out what their concerns are.

Dan Berman: So are you going to have an investigation whether, with the inspector general perhaps?

Secretary Gale Norton: Investigation I think is the wrong word. No, I don't think that investigation is the right word. I think I want to listen to my employees and find out what their concerns are.

Dan Berman: You know, back to this report, 44 percent of the respondents say that they have been asked by their superiors to alter their scientific findings and your point about working together in cooperation between the biologists and the engineers, while a valid one, isn't it going over across the line to ask the biologists to change their work, essentially, instead of letting them finish their work and then taking that into consideration with other political concerns?

Secretary Gale Norton: Well again, one of the key questions is whether what people are talking about is, you know, the preconceived notions they had before they sat down to talk with the engineers in the Mississippi River example, to find out what can be done to help accommodate the interests. I think that the question is whether there are actually being changes in scientific data compared to changes that really are trying to find something that's going to work for the long-term future of the species. And so, I think that we may have some situations where people don't like to be told to change things, but our managers do have the ability and the right to look at a broader range of things. And so that, we think, is something that we'd like to find out what the concern is.

Dan Berman: Is this sound science something that you would want to see in any ESA legislation from the Hill?

Secretary Gale Norton: We have testified in support of a peer review process and in a scientific world that's the way that you make sure that science is as well founded as it can be and I think that is an appropriate way to deal with major decisions that need to be done.

Colin Sullivan: OK. If we can move on to another subject: drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Your budget this year assumes $2.4 billion in leasing revenue and my first question is why hasn't that figure changed? Why is it the same assumption of revenue in 2007 as it was in the budget last year? I mean, the price of oil's going up, is that a calculation that you do? I mean, how do you come to that calculation?

Secretary Gale Norton: That was a calculation that was done several years ago, and it might be something that could be done to say it would be more because the oil prices have gone up, but we opted to just stick with the current analysis instead of confusing things by having that be a number that would fluctuate depending on whether oil prices are high this week or lower next week or whatever.

Colin Sullivan: Well regardless, it's a lot of money, so. You support going through the budget reconciliation process to move in more drilling. Have you talked directly with Senator Gregg on the Senate side, the Budget chairman, or Nussle on the House side?

Secretary Gale Norton: I've talked with a number of members of Congress about that and look forward to talking with some more. I've got a number of appointments scheduled.

Colin Sullivan: About the budget chairman? Have you talked to the budget chairman?

Secretary Gale Norton: I have talked with Senator Gregg.

Colin Sullivan: Has Gregg, so far Senator Gregg's been somewhat silent on whether or not he's willing to back this. Senator Domenici's come out and said we're going to do this, Senator Frist has come out and said we're going to do this, but so far from Gregg and Nussle, nothing.

Secretary Gale Norton: Well those issues are really ones that need to be resolved by Congress and we've always said that it's up to the members of Congress to decide how things operate in terms of their procedure, but our goal is to provide the information about ANWR and what that means in America's energy future. It's very clear that in that very small area we have a very large share of America's oil reserves. We've estimated, for example, that at peak ANWR could produce as much energy from a very small area, about the size of Delaware as the whole area that might be explored with 2,000 acres as the limitation of the footprint, that with that you could produce as much oil as the entire state of Texas produces. And so that is a very significant resource and we need to be looking at that.

Colin Sullivan: But the White House supports doing it through the budget process or not?

Secretary Gale Norton: We support doing it in whatever way is going to make that resource available in an environmentally responsible way.

Dan Berman: All right, turning back to another contentious issue in the budget, the request for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, specifically, the Park Service stateside grants. It was funded just over $90 million last year, but this year the administration has said that you want to zero out the program. Why do you want to zero it out and do you expect Congress to try and put money back?

Secretary Gale Norton: We have for, throughout the administration funded a number of different conservation grants and we've been very enthusiastic about the stateside grants for Land and Water Conservation Fund and put in a large request for those early in the administration. We've also developed other programs that are focused on wetlands restoration or the endangered species ones I mentioned, cooperative conservation programs that work with farmers and ranchers to restore habitat on private lands. As we analyzed it, OMB did some very specific analysis of the stateside grants and found that those were not as effective as our other programs, so we have put our focus into those other programs. When you look in our overall budget for conservation grants it's about $75 million more than what Congress gave us last year, so we do have an increase in the overall conservation grants program. We've just shifted away from one program we felt was not as effective.

Dan Berman: OK, but do you still, do you expect Congress to try and restore some of those earmarks? I mean, they're very popular, especially among the growing recreation community and a contingency out in the West?

Secretary Gale Norton: Well, I know that there are people who like those grants and I assume that we will hear from them and it is something where we will be working with Congress to help with explaining our reason for deciding the other programs were more effective ones.

Colin Sullivan: Do you support this proposed shakeup in the House on the appropriations process, paring down the subcommittees of the appropriations committee from 13 to 10, which would effectively bring EPA and Interior under the same budget line? Do you support that?

Secretary Gale Norton: It's not really something that's appropriate for the executive branch to weigh into, that's really something that is for Congress to decide. We have a lot of related programs and, you know, we're in with different elements on the House side and the Senate side and so it always is difficult to deal within the budget cap for a particular area. Whenever we make decisions it's increasing one program and decreasing something else to make room in the overall pot, and I think that's something that people don't really understand. It doesn't make that much difference which pot it is. There's always a process that you have to go through to try and fit everything everybody wants within an overall limited pot of money.

Colin Sullivan: So you don't think Interior would have to compete with EPA if they were under the same spending bill?

Secretary Gale Norton: Well, we have to compete with whoever we're in with. They allocate a certain amount of money to Interior and it may be later in the process, it may be earlier in the process, but the reality is that all federal agencies, in essence, are competing with each other for the limited pool of dollars.

Dan Berman: All right, well speaking of adding the money in the pot, I know the bill has a legislative proposal to take 70 percent of the proceeds from the Las Vegas and Clark County BLM land sales and essentially direct them into the general fund, into the treasury. Why is this proposal necessary and how do you think they'll be able to sell it to members on the Hill, especially Minority Leader Reid?

Secretary Gale Norton: We have a program that I'm very enthusiastic about. It has accomplished great things. Basically, in the Las Vegas area we have Bureau of Land Management land that in many cases is vacant lots within the city of Las Vegas. We have been auctioning off some of that property in cooperation with the local government and making land available for residential construction, then taking those proceeds to buy sensitive lands and to make bike paths and visitor centers and all sorts of things. That program has been wildly successful beyond anybody's expectations. We just had a sale. We sold an acre of land for $300,000, so the funds are at about five times what anybody projected when the law was first put into effect. Our proposal would let the local government funding and the funding for conservation purposes remain at about five times what they were when it was originally proposed, but to take some of that other money for the very large needs of the taxpayers trying to balance the budget.

Dan Berman: Well just because the land sales are more successful than you anticipated, is that really fair to Nevada? Because, I mean, obviously the local communities will have increased costs associated with the growth and development. Is that really fair to the state to take their money away?

Secretary Gale Norton: Actually, the funding that goes for those purposes is not changed, so they continue to get the same percentage for those purposes, including water in schools and things like that. So we did not change that amount of money. What we found ourselves doing was going into counties were the federal government already owned 85 percent of the land and buying more federal land and that was really not making, perhaps, as much sense as some other uses for the funding in the federal treasury. So while we remain very enthusiastic about what can be accomplished through that, we think that the current funding will allow us to accomplish those things while making some money available for other taxpayers.

Colin Sullivan: Senator Harry Reid has come out against that proposal though. Is the administration picking on Harry Reid with this thing? I mean, last time, last term it seemed like the administration was going after Tom Daschle on a number of fronts. Has the administration, with this proposal, decided we're gonna pick on Harry Reid?

Secretary Gale Norton: Not at all. This actually is, because this is one place where a billion dollars was coming in for something that had originally been budgeted for about $200 million. So as OMB is looking through the budget trying to find places where you can free up money that's not being used as effectively as possible this was one program that had ballooned beyond what was originally anticipated. There were some great things going on. I'm still enthusiastic about those things. We've built every visitor center you can build in that area. We've put in lots of bike paths and things like that. Now it's time to look at some other priorities, while continuing to still have lots of funding that is available for those original purposes.

Colin Sullivan: OK. We'll let that be the final word. Secretary Norton, thank you for joining us on our program. Dan Berman, thanks for being here. Join us tomorrow for another edition of OnPoint. Until then, I'm Colin Sullivan for E&ETV.

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