Published: January 14, 2003

photo preview / download Interior Secretary Norton Discusses New Forest Policy

DATE: January 14, 2003


PROGRAM: “Capital Report with Alan Murray” (Tues. – Fri. 9 – 10 p.m. ET)

The following is an advanced and official transcript of this evening’s program. All references must be sourced, “CNBC’s Capital Report with Alan Murray”:

ALAN MURRAY: Secretary Norton thanks for being with us. Seven million acres of forest burned last year; you’re going to New Orleans tomorrow to announce what the administration is going to do to keep that from happening in the future. Give us the news?

INTERIOR SECRETARY GALE NORTON: We are entering into a couple of different agreements. One of them focuses on local firefighters. They really are our front lines of defense and so we want to see that they have the training and the equipment that they need and so we will be coordinating with other federal agencies to make sure that our programs are coordinated and make sense to help them.

MURRAY: You are also doing some of these healthy forest projects to thin some forests, right?

SECRETARY NORTON: Yes. Across the country, we’re working on ways to make our forests healthier and to prioritize that we will be working with states and local communities and with the Indian tribes and so the second of our agreements is putting in place the framework for doing that.

MURRAY: Part of the goal of your healthy forest initiative and really your land management policies in general is to circumvent, short cut, get rid of the burden of some of these environmental impact studies, correct?

SECRETARY NORTON: When you look at the health of the forests it is very clear that the natural forests are much less dense than today’s forests and getting us to that state, whether it’s through prescribed burns or through mechanical thinning, it is something that our biologists and our land managers tell us needs to be done for the health of the forests and what we have found is that we go through documenting that time after time after time

MURRAY: Analysis paralysis is the term someone in the process used.

SECRETARY NORTON: That’s right. So the Forest Service did a study and found that about 40 percent of their budget was going to analysis and litigation.

MURRAY: Environmental analysis; environmental — endangered species for instance, that kind of thing.

SECRETARY NORTON: We still of course need to take care of endangered species and make sure that we’ve studied things. We’re doing some things that will make that process more efficient and really go — what are the real issues instead of just studying for the sake of producing paper.

MURRAY: But the critics say that the real issues here are you’re trying to make it easier for timber companies to get in there and cut down trees basically. They say this is the timber industry’s agenda that you were enacting.

SECRETARY NORTON: I think they need to look at the reality of our forests. Most of the areas that we’re talking about are not places where anybody has any great designs for timber production. There are areas where we need to take out small trees to take out even shrubs that are not like anybody thinks about —

MURRAY: Who does the thinning? Is it done by federal workers or is it done by private timber companies?

SECRETARY NORTON: Well, that’s actually the root of the problem. We are doing about a million acres a year within the Department of the Interior to try to address our problems. The Forest Service is also doing a parallel amount, but we have 190 million acres of area that is at high fire risk and so if we just keep doing it with the federal taxpayers paying the bill, we’ll never get the process really going —

MURRAY: So you need to let private industry in to make it happen?

SECRETARY NORTON: Private industry, non-profits, local governments — anybody that we can recruit to try to help us with the process and some of the things that we’re doing are looking at ways to use the small timber, to use the shrubs that can be productive. The Forest Service has a research laboratory that has come up with ways of using biomass and developing products that don’t require big trees that really can use the very small products that come out of the forest.

MURRAY: This administration by the way is now talking about freezing spending on everything other than national defense and homeland security; that means no increases beyond maybe an inflationary increase. Is that going to make it harder for you to do what you need to do to stop these fires?

SECRETARY NORTON: Well, we’ve certainly been looking at how we can do things most efficiently and how we can bring in partners. When you look at our projects across the board, we find that those things that are successful bring together a number of partners and we see, for example, the gateway communities whose economy and whose livelihood depends on tourists coming through, those are some of the people that are most supportive of this effort. If we can work with them to have them take on some of the responsibility for helping thin the forest so that we’re all coordinating, than that is going to be much more productive.

MURRAY: All right. Let’s turn to oil. You have a new Congress, the Republican are in control in both houses of Congress. Is that going to make it possible for you to get permission to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

SECRETARY NORTON: We have been working closely with members of Congress and with others who support that concept —

MURRAY: Do you have the votes?

SECRETARY NORTON: And certainly — I believe that we do as we look at the need for having our own domestic supply. We certainly have seen the price at the gas pump go up dramatically in the last few months because of international instability, in this case, it’s Venezuela and not the Middle East, but it just shows that the United States needs to have some secure domestic sources and ANWR is our largest untapped source.

MURRAY: Let’s turn to water. You were sued — you personally were sued on Friday by Imperial County California — the poorest county in California for cutting off some of the water that it was drying out of the Colorado River. How come?

SECRETARY NORTON: The Imperial Irrigation District has the largest allocation of water from the Colorado River and they have far more than many of the states actually get from the Colorado River. California has the responsibility to fulfill some agreements it entered into to bring down the amounts of water that it uses from the river to its legal share and in order to do that they need to get that irrigation district to also cut back on how much it’s going to use. An entire agreement that took years to complete that involved seven states has all broken down because of one irrigation district —

MURRAY: And you’re trying to force them back to the table —

SECRETARY NORTON: And they are the ones that are suing us. Yes, we’d like to see them come back.

MURRAY: You know, the cynics say that when it comes to Florida, a state that’s very important to the president’s reelection prospects, you seem very reasonable, whether it’s dealing with offshore oil drilling, whether it’s dealing with Everglades restoration. But when it comes to California, which is not going to vote for President Bush on his reelection, you get much tougher — cutting off their water, refusing to buy back the oil leases off the coast. What do you say to those critics?

SECRETARY NORTON: Well, first of all, the California water issue was an agreement that my predecessor Bruce Babbitt entered into, so it was really something that the Clinton administration formulated and we followed through on enforcing that. As to offshore, we’ve said that we would work with California, but California unlike Florida, received some of the money that came in from the sale of those leases offshore. We’ve asked California to come forward with some financial commitment to pay its share of any transaction that we might enter into.

MURRAY: So there’s no politics in this?

SECRETARY NORTON: It’s really something that requires us to do what we do with all of the Interior lands. We have one out of every five acres of land in this country and that means we have to treat different areas depending on what fits that area —

MURRAY: Particular circumstances —

SECRETARY NORTON: What’s true in Alaska isn’t necessarily true in Florida and we have to design things that fit the local environment.

MURRAY: Your department also oversees Indians — Indian reservations; has been responsible for this policy of setting aside money from royalties — oil, other natural resources. Setting that aside for the benefit of Indians. Now, as you well know, there’s a judge — district court judge who has been on the warpath about this, Royce Lamberth, who has said that the department — he says there is no longer any doubt that the Secretary of the Interior has been and continues to be an unfit trustee delegate for the United States. So that millions, maybe billions of dollars has been squandered and not available for the Indians’ benefit.

SECRETARY NORTON: The issue goes back to 1887 when Congress —

MURRAY: And you weren’t in this office then. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY NORTON: I didn’t quite make it by 1887. I feel like it sometimes.

MURRAY: All right.

SECRETARY NORTON: It is a problem that needs to be addressed and I think we have done far more than any previous administration in decades and decades to try to solve the problem —

MURRAY: But not enough to satisfy Judge Lamberth.

SECRETARY NORTON: We are really undergoing dramatic change in that area. We’ve brought in new people. We’re working with a number of different consultants from Bank of America to all sorts of financial consultants to really help us get this process changed. We’ve gone through documentation of everything that is being done and we’re undergoing a process of really making comprehensive change and doing it in a careful and meticulous way that’s going to take time, but will lead to some fundamental long-term changes.

MURRAY: All right. Well, Secretary Norton, thanks for being on Capital Report and for bring us tomorrow’s news today. We’re happy to have it.

SECRETARY NORTON: Thank you so much.

MURRAY: Thank you very much. You can talk about anything.

SECRETARY NORTON: All right. Just keep talking.

MURRAY: I have to listen to you whatever you say.


MURRAY: But what a huge —

SECRETARY NORTON: It’s a fantastic job. It’s so many different things, but it is one of the few departments that has conflicting missions within it, I mean, you’ve got the Fish and Wildlife Service people that do endangered species. You have the Minerals Management Service that does the offshore oil and gas production and you have the Bureau of Reclamation and its dams and irrigation projects and so it’s really no wonder that the department has had throughout its history a lot of controversy involved with it and it really is just so diverse — the different areas that we manage.



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