Cabinet official pushes agenda in visit to refuge
- 'Restoration - it's what we do every day', says Norton
NISQUALLY, WA 2-5-03-- Secretary of Interior Gale Norton paid a quick
visit to Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on Tuesday to promote
the land conservation policies embedded in the 2004 federal budget
rolled out by President Bush this week.
Overall, the nation's 540 wildlife refuges would see a $26 million boost for maintenance projects, marking a more than 20 percent increase since 2001 when Bush took office, she said.
She also defended a $10.5 billion interior budget that assumes $2.4 billion in revenue from oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"We must continue to look at it," she said of the oil drilling plan. "It would be conducted under the most stringent environmental requirements ever."
About 20 protesters positioned themselves around the refuge, carrying signs that said the Bush administration is no friend of the environment.
"The Bush administration's priorities for refuges are better represented by the stated goal to sacrifice the crown jewel of the refuge system -- Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- for oil and gas drilling," said Bill Arthur, Sierra Club Northwest/Alaska regional office director.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also took advantage of Norton's visit to the state to ask Norton via a news release why the Bush administration has eliminated funding to continue purchasing Plum Creek Timber Co. forestland, which links Alpine Lakes in the Cascade mountains to Mount Rainier.
Over the last three years, Murray, former Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash, and others helped secure $36 million for the land acquisition.
Norton sidestepped the question, noting that the project has not been a part of her department's budget.
Asked why she picked the Nisqually refuge for her budget unveiling, Norton said she wanted to highlight the partnership that has developed between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the neighboring Nisqually Indian tribe.
The tribe owns land within the refuge boundary and has breached dikes to convert some 40 acres from pasture for cows to saltwater marsh for fish and wildlife.
In the future, the Nisqually refuge could be home to a 700-acre, $5 million estuary restoration project, which would require roughly $2.5 million in additional funds to compete.
During a 90-minute tour of the refuge by foot and by van, accompanied by Nisqually refuge manager Jean Takekawa, Norton was noncommittal about Interior Department funding for the project in the years ahead, saying it will have to compete with a host of other refuge restoration projects around the country. She hesitated to call the Nisqually project unique.
"Restoration -- it's what we do every day," she said.
The maintenance money earmarked for the refuge would be used to build a fence to keep cows out of newly created salt marsh on tribal and Department of Fish and Wildlife lands, as well as repair the refuge's temporary visitor and education center.
Last year, the refuge received $20,000 for maintenance, Takekawa said.
The refuge tour was peppered with photo opportunities for the media and ended with a brief news conference next to the old Twin Barns Educational Center, which was damaged and shut down following the Nisqually Earthquake two years ago.
Norton seemed to enjoy herself through it all, at one point focusing binoculars on a sun-drenched bald eagle and later marveling at the Puget Sound vista from the perimeter of the Brown Farm Dike Trail.
The blue, sunny skies also were well received.
"This has been a wonderful day today," she said. "This has been just beautiful."
No other public events or fund-raisers were scheduled during Norton's brief Northwest visit, according to Interior officials.
The visit was kept under wraps until Monday, when it was officially confirmed.
John Dodge covers the environment and energy for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5444 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the Web
U.S. Dept. of the Interior: www.doi.gov
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge: http://nisqually.fws.gov
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