(CNSNews.com) - Environmentalists are already raising red flags about President-elect George W. Bush's choice of Gale Norton to head the Interior Department.
"[We] will hope for the best but prepare for the worst," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife. "Gale Norton's record indicates that she has not been a moderate on environmental and conservation issues, but rather a right-wing extremist."
Norton, a former official at the Agriculture and Interior Departments and the former Colorado Attorney General, is regarded as extremely conservative on environmental issues. She has been a proponent of Arctic drilling and an opponent of Western land set-asides. Norton is also a protege of controversial former Reagan Interior Secretary James Watt.
Norton served as legal counsel to Watts at the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative public interest law firm in Colorado that Schlickeisen calls "extremist and anti-conservation."
Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation, also raised questions about Norton's record, expressing hope that Norton "will develop a positive
common-sense conservation and environmental agenda for the future."
Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said that he was approaching the nomination "with caution," referring to her association with Watt.
As Colorado attorney general, Norton won court victories requiring the federal government to clean up military dumpsites at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. She also has been a leader in resisting federal environmental mandates and rolling back planned federal takeovers of water rights.
In 1998, she announced support for a proposed federal law allowing corporations to avoid liability for environmental hazards if they turned themselves around and cleaned up the site. She has also indicated that she favors opening up some federal lands to business concerns such as logging companies and oil drilling.
"Companies are more likely to find out if they have environmental problems if there's some hope regulators will work with them," she said at the time.
Bush said throughout the campaign he favored opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas exploration.
In 1990, Norton became the first female attorney general in Colorado history, beating incumbent Duane Woodard. She was reelected four years later, after winning high praise for her litigation track record.
"She's very smart, and she knows her stuff," said Norm Clasen of the Rocky Mountain Institute. "She's able to work with people, and we plan to reach out to her."
In 1996, she lost the Republican primary for U.S. Senate to eventual winner Wayne Allard, partly because of her support for abortion.
Throughout her career, said Jon Caldara, head of the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Colorado, Norton has shown a preference for free market solutions and local control in solving environmental problems. Norton serves on the board of the institute.
But Caldara adds that she is able to work with disparate groups.
"The people criticizing her are likely to eat crow before too long," he said. "She'll bring all the parties to the table."