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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Gale Norton
Gale Norton
Interior Secretary
March 4, 2004

Gale Norton

Earlier today, Interior's Office of Surface Mining awarded Pennsylvania more than $24 million to help reclaim dangerous abandoned mine lands. More than 1.6 million Pennsylvanians and 3.5 million Americans across the nation live less than a mile from dangerous abandoned mine sites.

President Bush wants to reauthorize the government's authority to collect an Abandoned Mine Land fee from coal companies to provide enough funding to eliminate all significant health and safety problems from abandoned coal mines within 25 years.

It would take 50 years if the current system continues. Additionally, the President's continuing commitment to cooperative conservation, including his recent proposal of an unprecedented $507.3 million in the FY '05 budget, has enabled the department to empower states, tribes, local communities, private landowners, and others to undertake innovative conservation projects to restore our land and recover its wildlife.

Interior manages one in five acres in the United States and is comprised of the following agencies: the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service, the Minerals Management Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Office of Surface Mining.

Thus our main responsibilities include land management, protection of wildlife including endangered species, providing services to Indian tribes and Alaska Natives and furthering conservation of our natural resources. I look forward to talking with you and responding to your comments and questions.

Stephen, from Melbourne Village, Florida writes:
Since late last year, in Utah alone, 40,000 acres of land have been sold off by the Department of the Interior. Why are we selling land that has been identified as of wilderness quality by the Bureau Land Management's "most experienced wilderness professionals?" Why are we selling the land for an average of $20 an acre when each acre is expected to yield revenue of $80 a year?

Gale Norton

Thank you for this intriguing question, Stephen. The Department of the Interior is not selling land in Utah and certainly NOT for $20 an acre.

It’s unfortunate that there is so much bad information out there. Protecting wilderness values is an important responsibility and we take it seriously.

In fact, in Utah alone, DOI manages approximately 3 million acres of land as Wilderness Study Areas and will continue to do so until Congress takes some final action regarding these areas.

Ben, from Philadelphia writes:
What role have ranchers and energy and timber companies played in shaping land-use policy in the current administration?

Gale Norton
One of the most exciting things about being Secretary of the Interior, Ben, is the interaction with a diverse and energized public.

Since most of the decisions the Department makes involve public comments or other public processes, all citizens have the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process for the future of America’s public lands.

Micah-John, from Nacogdoches Texas SFASU writes:
Dear Secretary Norton, Is the Healthy Forest Initiative of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act an ongoing program? There is much more into this discussion, however, do you feel as if this program will continue and if so to what extent and if not why?

Gale Norton
We definitely plan to continue the Healthy Forest Initiative. With passage of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, we now have the tools that will allow us to efficiently improve the health of our forests.

We also have increased funding because the President's fiscal year 2005 budget provides $760 million to fully fund the purposes of this Act. With both tools and funding, we are now moving forward to tackle the problem.

Neverthess, decades of forest mismanagement will take many years to correct. We are encouraged by the strong federal, state and local partnerships working to restore our forests.

We have a strong working relationship among firefighters on all levels to combat forest fires when they happen.

Kristen, from Brengel writes:
Last year, you signed an agreement with then-Gov. Leavitt in an attempt to resolve RS 2477 road claims in Utah. Since then, the General Accounting Office concluded that the agreement is illegal and the State of Utah is pushing litigation to obtain 15 alleged RS 2477 rights-of-way-- some are in a National Monument and Wilderness Study Areas. When you signed the agreement, you said it would "resolve a long-disputed issue that may otherwise have led to costly and lengthy litigation." Since the agreement is being called into question and litigation is moving forward that could damage prized public lands, are you going to reconsider your approach and work with Congress to resolve this issue once and for all?

Gale Norton
Conflict surrounding county roads in western states has been ongoing for nearly 30 years, Kristen, and nobody would like to solve this issue “once and for all” more than me.

From my experience as a state Attorney General, I know it can take decades for such major litigation to resolve disputes.

So we are trying to work cooperatively with states to use our existing authority to resolve the lengthy disputes over road ownership while also protecting conservation areas.

That’s why our agreement with Utah makes it certain that National Parks, Refuges, Wilderness Areas and other sensitive areas are protected.

John, from Bangor, ME writes:
Why do you feel the need to open up our public lands to oil and gas development? These are the public's lands, should there be a process in place where Amercian citizens can decide what lands they would want to open up to development? I think most Americans, if they knew what was going on, would not be pleased at the way that our lands are being used.

Gale Norton
We strongly agree that the public should be given a chance to participate in deciding how our public lands will be managed.

In many ways, what you want to happen is already happening since I have adopted a policy of conservation through communication, consultation and cooperation. The law requires that most Bureau of Land Management lands be managed to accommodate a wide variety of uses. The lands and offshore areas managed by Interior produce a third of America’s domestic coal, oil and natural gas.

We are already seeing factory workers lose jobs to overseas relocations because of the high price of natural gas. We need to consider many different factors.

One in five acres of all the lands of this nation are managed by the Department of the Interior, so it is vitally important that all of our citizens have a voice in the management of these vast land holdings.

Jesse, from California writes:
Honorable Mrs. Norton, What a challenging job you have Thank you for serving. Does the interior have plans to help manage the bark beetle in Southern California mountains? Thanks,


Gale Norton
I visited the site of the devastating fires in southern California last year. I was especially struck by seeing one of our Indian reservations that had been devastated by the fire. Most of the southern California area of the fires is part of the U.S. Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture. All of the Federal agencies are working together closely to address serious and fast-spreading problems like bark beetles.

Daniel, from Crockett , Tx writes:
Why do you continue to allow people to have such a little concequence for littering. Our grass and trees is what makes our community look half way decient, not to mention the harm its causing our environment.

Gale Norton
Certainly there are laws across the nation against littering. At Interior, we have brought back a wonderful program called Take Pride in America, in which volunteers work to clean up our public lands. It's part of the President’s USA Freedom Corps. We have 41 states that have joined us in this effort to Take Pride in our nation and keep it clean.

Theresa, from Sedro-Woolley, WA writes:
Why is it that the Department of the Interior, an organization supposedly devoted to preserving and CARING for our national parks, has embraced contracting out?

Gale Norton
Under the President’s Management Agenda, all of our bureaus are looking for opportunities for management improvement.

Using a competitive review process, we are looking at a small number of activities to explore whether we should:

1) change how we deliver a service or function to improve effectiveness; or 2) consider partnering with the private sector, such as janitorial services, lawn care, or fleet repairs. We have 70,000 employees at Interior. We are using our competitive reviews to study about 2,700 positions. No full-time employee has involuntarily lost a job through our competitive review process. Our parks, refuges and other land managers retain any savings from these management improvements to help them serve the public.

I also note that park visitors are already served by a variety of enthusiastic service-providers; Park Service rangers, volunteers, concessionaires, and other contractors. Our goals are to protect park resources and provide terrific experiences for our visitors.

Jamie, from California writes:
What steps are you taking to increase fuel efficiancy standards and, more importantly, develop alternative sources of energy?

Gale Norton
The Department of the Interior is a leader in encouraging use of alternative fuels, and is using clean, fuel-efficient vehicles.

We operate a fleet of 2,334 alternative fuel vehicles, of which 81-percent use ethanol and 13-percent use compressed natural gas. We have established a renewable energy ombudsman to facilitate development of alternative fuels such as wind, geothermal, solar, hydropower and biomass energy.

We hosted a biomass conference in Denver in January. Working with the National Renewal Energy Lab, we released a report on opportunities for renewable energy on public lands.

Since 2001, rights-of-way permits for wind energy have increased from 1 in 2001 to 29 in 2003. Geothermal permits have increased from 2 in 2001 to 73 in 2003.

Woody, from Orange, TX writes:
Dear Ms. Secretary: I support drilling in ANWAR. What can the average citizen do to further this position? As an environmentalist, I am aware of the science that supports drilling there and elsewhere; that it does not mean resource destruction. Furthermore, it can reduce our dependence on foreign oil. What is your stance on the issue?

Happy Spring Break,

Woody HS Science Teacher

Gale Norton
I, too, support the development of oil in ANWR. As your question recognizes, the amount of energy that could be produced there would help to reduce our Nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

In fact, the previous administration estimated that, if fully developed, the small area potentially used in ANWR could produce more oil every day than your entire home state of Texas.

The environmental protection regulation would be the strictest ever imposed on energy production anywhere.

Jill, from Vermont writes:
The national parks are great treasures. People of modest means are able to visit these parks and see, first-hand, the beauty of America. I think your most important job is to see that these parks are kept free from mining, grazing and drilling. Don't you agree?

Gale Norton
National parks are indeed wonderful treasures. We are delighted that more than 200 million people visit them every year.

There are some areas where uses like the ones you mention occur in parks because those uses existed long before the parks were created.

This Administration has never proposed opening new parks or wilderness areas to mining or energy development.

We have undertaken massive efforts to repair and maintain our parks. The President’s budget proposes over $1 billion next year for park restoration.

1,300 projects are completed or underway since President Bush took office, with another 400 on track for next year.

In coming years as you visit national parks, the water should be cleaner, cracks in historic buildings should be repaired, visitor centers should be improved, and roads should be smoother.

Devlin, from Chicago, IL writes:
It seems the Bush adminisration is preoccupied with other things other than the environment. Can you please elaborate on what this current administration will do differently, concerning the environment, if re-elected?

Gale Norton
Conserving and caring four our public lands continues as a strong Administration commitment. The President committed to addressing a long-standing backlog of maintenance needs in our national parks and is fulfilling that commitment. As I mentioned in a previous answer, over 1,300 repair and rehabilitation projects are completed or underway and 400 new ones are anticipated in 2004. The President has proposed $3.9 billion toward reducing the backlog through 2004, with another $1.1 billion proposed for 2004. The billion dollars for addressing National Park Service maintenance in 2004 represents a 50-percent increase in funding over the FY 2000 level.

In addition to caring for our public lands, cooperative conservation is a hallmark of our environmental commitment. To achieve this vision, over the past 3 years the Department has provided $1.3 billion in grants to states, nonprofits, Tribes, and private landowners to protect and restore habitat and wildlife. Our proposed $507 million of cooperative conservation grants in 2005 reflects an increase of 270-percent since 2000.

Through our Cooperative Conservation Challenge Cost-Share Program in 2003, we funded 256 projects with more than 740 partners in 40 states. From 2001 to 2003, one of our cooperative conservation programs, our Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, restored more than 700,000 acres of prairie and 150,000 acres of wetlands, working with nearly 9,000 partners.

We issued the first comprehensive federal guidelines to promote establishment of conservation banks to ensure perpetual protection of endangered species. Across that nation, we are working in partnership with all Americans to achieve on-the-ground conservation results. We are restoring tidal wildlife habitat in San Francisco Bay on more than 16,000 acres of salt ponds. We are working with Colorado to promote conservation of mountain plovers.

These efforts highlight just few of our conservation initiatives. Perhaps one of the most dramatic achievements is the President's Healthy Forests Initiative. To improve forest and rangeland health, we are investing with the Forest Service in reducing dense brush, diseased trees, and overly dense, unhealthy trees to reduce the threat of catastrophic fires that destroy whole ecosystems. The President's Healthy Forests Initiative ultimately culminated in passage of the bipartisan Healthy Forests Restoration Act, sighed into law by the President in December 2003.

Gale Norton
I appreciate having the chance to chat with you today. Interior has fascinating issues and spectacular landscapes, and we're happy to highlight them for you. If you have additional questions -- or would like to plan a vacation in some of America's most beautiful spots- please visit our Interior website at I hope you will also get directly involved by volunteering on our public lands through our Take Pride in America volunteer program. For more information, visit,