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Gail Norton’s Farewell Letter

By Amanda Terkel on April 4, 2006 at 2:38 pm

FAREWELL AND THANKYOU

(Note to Supervisors: Please ensure that employees without access to electronic mail receive a paper copy of this message.)

Thank you all for five great years.

I have the utmost respect for the outstanding team of dedicated employees in the Department of the Interior. I said that the day I arrived here as Secretary, because I had learned it during my previous tour of duty at Interior, in the Solicitor’s Office. That respect has continued growing ever since.

My husband John Hughes has been my partner throughout the adventure of the past five years. And a fascinating adventure it has been. We both want to thank you for your friendship, your hospitality, your extra efforts, your patience.

Most of all I want to thank my husband. He has been a real trooper and has indulged my passion for this job. Before I became Secretary, John spent almost a decade indulging my service as Attorney General of Colorado.

That decade meant he was my most committed campaign volunteer on three statewide campaigns. John drove for hours between campaign events, while I slept in the back of the station wagon. He endured endless evenings of boring speeches by county commissioner candidates. He ate rubber chicken with me in school cafeterias and windowless hotel banquet halls.

When my term limit expired and I left office as Attorney General, John and I reveled in the freedom of controlling our own schedules, playing golf and skiing on weekends, exploring Jeep roads, enjoying laid-back evenings with friends — in short, having a life.

That joyous normalcy had lasted less than two years, when I received a fateful call to come to Washington and join President Bush’s Cabinet.

While I began work here, John packed up our household goods and got them moved to DC. He gave up his own pursuits to join me. John has been my companion on some of our wonderful travels around the country, but more often he stayed behind while I traveled.

He has endured Washington, DC. But this area has clearly never been his favorite place.

So, for all of this, I want to publicly thank the man I married at the top of Aspen Mountain, John Hughes.

Now, let me tell you about how valuable my experience at Interior has been. I am going to skip the list of accomplishments — it’s a great list and you all helped create it. Instead, I want to share a more personal perspective.

But to do that, let me start the story a long time ago. One of the most memorable moments of my life took place when I was just a few months out of law school. Before settling into a job, I took a month to travel around the West all by myself.

One night I camped in Canyonlands National Park, at a place poetically and appropriately named Island in the Sky. Today it’s a popular spot, but then it was down a long dirt road, and I had the place all to myself.

I walked out to the farthest tip of the mesa, over a thousand feet above the confluence of two rivers. I sat down on the edge of the cliff and gazed around. Over millennia, the rivers have carved the land into intricate rock formations and cliffs, stretching in a spectacular vista 50 miles on all sides of me.

As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but the glory of nature. I watched as the sunset turned the canyon striking colors of gold and rust and yellow, progressing through brilliant red . . . at last to deep maroons and purples.

As I think about my job at Interior, I think of having a vantage point as stirring as that. What I have found most valuable about my experience here is the wondrous vista of America that has unfolded before my eyes. It is a vista of incredible scope and variety.

As Secretary of the Interior, I have been privileged to visit some of the most beautiful and amazing spots on earth. The half a billion acres of Interior land contains every description of special splendor.

John and I flew our most exhilarating plane flight ever when we circled around Mt. McKinley in Alaska, North America’s highest peak. It was like a roller coaster ride for adults — flying with sheer rock faces seemingly just off the wingtip. I finally took off my seat belt to move around and take better pictures. I figured that if we whammed into a mountainside, the seat belt wouldn’t do any good anyway.

We crawled into the deep reach of Carlsbad Caverns, where even the park superintendent had never been, and saw massive stalactites and stalagmites.

I went “slough slogging”, wading through the Everglades, and air boated through Loxahatchee. I saw wild horses and burros in Nevada. I flew over Mt. St. Helens as it oozed its latest eruption.

John and I ventured out early one morning to walk around Old Faithful when it was 22 degrees below zero, the sky was crystal clear, the bison were white with frost on their thick curly coats, and steam from geysers formed small clouds on the horizon.

I had to snorkel in the Virgin Islands, since our responsibility extends to coral reefs.

This job has also given me the opportunity to experience the wonders of wildlife as part of my vista of America. I have learned how to hold steady so a raptor can perch on my arm. This arm has hosted red tailed hawks, a peregrine falcon, and a beautiful aplomado falcon.

I had the moving experience of releasing an injured eagle back into the wild. For a brief moment, I held the eagle’s talons in one hand and its beak in the other, and held its tucked wings against my body. Then I threw it skyward, and watched its mighty wings stretch out and lift it up. I was struck by a feeling of joy as the ultimate symbol of freedom flew up above the treetops and finally disappeared in the distance.

I have stroked a porcupine – which works just fine as long as you stroke WITH the direction of the quills.

My husband and I, Mike Libby from my security detail, and a park ranger got surrounded by grizzlies in Alaska. To make a long story short, we boated across a lake and hiked up a river, with several groups of bears on the far side of the river.

We spotted more bears upstream, just as a float plane scared the bears from the other side of the river into crossing to our side. We carefully made our way back toward our boat, only to find two bears investigating our boat. We had to wait nervously until they concluded our boat contained no food.

My most public experience with wildlife was at the Wildlife Refuge Centennial Celebration in Florida. Jack Hanna, who hosts a television wildlife show, was the master of ceremonies. Thousands of people were in the audience.

I had just finished my speech, and returned to my seat to relax and watch the rest of the program. Jack surprised me by calling me back up, because he said he had a few animals to present to the wildlife refuge system.

First, he presented a bobcat. It was beautiful, and its fur was soft. The next animal they brought out was a skunk. I hesitated for an instant, then decided it must be deodorized. Finally, they brought out a snake, a big yellow snake. Surely they wouldn’t have me up on stage in front of all these people and hand me a poisonous snake! As I stood there holding this 10 or 15 pound snake, I was thinking, where in the job description did it say, “Must be able to handle large snakes?”

When I talk about having had the opportunity to see a vista of America, I am not just referring to the natural world. Here at Interior, I have had a front row seat to understand regional differences, the broad cultural diversity of our land, and the history that makes us who we are.

It reminds me of the lyrics to a song sung by Carole King. “My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue, an everlasting vision of the ever-changing view.”

We have the honor of being responsible for the patriotic icons of America. It is awesome to stand in the same room where our Founding

Fathers negotiated the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

We celebrated the centennial of flight at Kitty Hawk, and did so in the company of Neil Armstrong. Meeting him was like meeting Columbus.

All of us in this room were touched by history on September 11, 2001. I will never forget standing in my office and seeing smoke billowing from the Pentagon. That night was one of the longest and strangest of my life, protected as a potential successor to the Presidency at one of those secure undisclosed locations. That day has had its impact on our Department and on America ever since.

America is blessed by its cultural complexity. I visited Spanish missions in Texas and New Mexico. I enjoyed watching traditional dances in Guam and American Samoa. I joined in the dancing with Alaska Native children in Nuiqsit.

I was struck by a statement made by a Gwichin elder in Arctic Village, Alaska. Her people live a subsistence lifestyle, relying mainly on migrating caribou. She said she wanted her grandchildren a thousand years from now to live the same way.

Just recently, I designated the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, as a national historic landmark. There, a racists’ bomb killed four innocent young girls. On a lighter note, my most recent landmark designation was Elvis Presley’s Graceland.

I was moved by a great sense of history as I watched Indians in full tribal headdresses and regalia, and cavalry in 19th Century uniforms ride horseback through the Little Bighorn Battlefield. There we dedicated a long overdue monument to the Indians who perished there, and everyone joined in singing “I’m Proud to be an American.”

I came here knowing I was a deep-down Westerner. When I was growing up, my father never wore any shoes but cowboy boots, and the height of the Denver social scene was the stock show and rodeo. My first clients as an attorney were ranchers challenging a cut to their grazing allotments.

But I never really understood how different the perspectives were between East and West.

Some of the differences are superficial. We are still trying to find some restaurant in Washington that serves decent green chili.

Other aspects of East v. West differences have more serious ramifications. Easterners are used to abundant water supplies. They have no idea how precious water is in the Great American Desert. They do not appreciate the intensity of conflicts about water allocation.

Easterners don’t seem to grasp the immensity of the West. You have probably seen a popular poster that depicts the New Yorker’s view of the country. It shows Manhattan as very large, with the rest of the country miniaturized into a much smaller area.

I had long suspected that some New Yorkers viewed all western federal lands as being Yellowstone, plus a few other acres. The communications office confirmed this lack of perspective when they counted up how many times the New York Times had editorialized about snowmobiles in Yellowstone during the last five years. Believe it or not – 25 times!

For all the important issues we deal with, for all our myriad projects restoring lands, for planting a million trees to cover reclaimed coal mines with hardwood forests, for reaching a resolution of decades-old conflicts on the Colorado River, for offshore oil wells withstanding hurricane forces, for making dramatic progress in Indian trust accounting – to the New York Times our most notable issue was snowmobiles in Yellowstone.

We Westerners face innumerable conflicts about the use of our lands, both public and private. Even as we consider the economic development that may disturb the land, we work from a common base of loving the land and the wildlife. There are no easy answers because we all care so much.

There is a fundamental self-reliance and individualism that are part of the Western character. When you camp alone in the wilderness, knowing you can depend only on yourself, you understand the world in a different way. In wilderness, there is reality independent of human preferences and conventions. Wealth and prestige mean nothing.

In Washington, reality is based on perception. The whims of the moment create their own actuality.

The cynicism in Washington is so pervasive that the idea of real commitment seems impossible. But I have seen the people who really care about the future of the country, and who put public welfare above their own in striving to do the right thing. I cannot thank all of them enough – from President Bush and Vice President Cheney to my top leadership team and immediate staff to the dedicated Interior employees who work across the nation.

I am pleased that I will leave Interior in the hands of someone who shares my love of our great land and a commitment to cooperative conservation, Governor Dirk Kempthorne. I am sure you will like him, and I urge all of you to welcome him as you have welcomed me.

The wonderful thing about Interior is that we deal with the issues so close to the heart and soul of the West and of America.

To work on issues about which you care passionately is the height of professional satisfaction. But it is time for John and I to regain our personal lives and hopefully head back out West. We thank you for all you have done.

It has been a great ride!