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Former Interior boss Gale Norton says Easterners don’t get Western Colorado

Author: Joey Bunch - March 31, 2018 - Updated: April 12, 2018

Gale NortonGale Norton, Colorado’s former attorney general and U.S.. secretary of the interior, speaks at Club 20’s annual meeting Friday night in Grand Junction. (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

GRAND JUNCTION — People in the East just don’t get the West, former U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton told the audience at Club 20’s 65th birthday party Friday night on the Western Slope.

“Club  20 helped educate me about the issues that are important to Colorado and  to the West,” she said. “This was especially important to me when I went to Washington, D.C.”

Norton said the hardest thing about running the Department of Interior was attracting knowledgeable Westerners to Washington. Current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is considering moving the headquarters to  the West, possibly to  Grand Junction.

“There’s a lot of differences between Easterners and Westerners,” Norton said.  “The first and most significant of those is that Easterners want to tell Westerners how to  manage their lands.

“Now when was it you made comments about how to manage the vistas of Manhattan? What do you think about improving the Potomac waterfront? But I had New Yorkers who felt like they owned not just the federal land but that they ought to control  destinies here in the West.”

Norton’s audience included a who’s who of Colorado leaders, including Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Denver, U.S.  Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and Secretary of State Wayne Williams.

She said the extraction industry helped write the history of Western Colorado, from gold and silver to uranium and coal.

A libertarian who became an Ayn Rand Republican, Norton  grew up in Thornton. She was interior secretary from 2001 to 2006 for President George W. Bush. She was the first woman to hold the job. She was an advocate for expanding oil and gas development in the West during her time in  the administration.

In 1991,  Norton was the first woman to elected as Colorado’s attorney general.

She said Friday night that fracking is only the latest chapter of Colorado’s history with extraction.

“Oil shale attracted attention because of the massive size of the massive size of the resource,” she said. “In the corners of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming there’s a resource that amounts to over a trillion barrels of oil.

“That’s far beyond Saudi Arabia,  on par with the oil sands in  Canada — it’s a huge resource.  Every time the United States has thought about its oil  future, that trillion barrels has looked pretty attractive.”

Norton said Club 20, the Western  Colorado coalition of business and  civic leaders from every county, plays a big role in helping the rest of the state and nation understand the balance of the region’s environment  and economy in relation to  mining and drilling.

“Club 20 is in a very key position, I think, to help get people to understand  what the impacts are, how to  deal with those impacts reasonably, how to make sure that  we are developing the resources we ought to develop while preserving the communities on the West Slope,” Norton said.

A lot has changed in Western Colorado since Club 20 started 65 years ago.

“In 1953,  I suspect few would have envisioned the Western Slope as a thriving wine-producing region,” Norton said to laughs. “And they certainly would not have envisioned  the business community as including marijuana growers and sellers.”

The political landscape also has been rich and complicated.

Norton praised the Wayne Aspinall, the Democratic congressman who represented Western  Colorado from 1949 to 1973.

He was a powerful head of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, as it was called them, Norton said. He fought for mining jobs, public lands policies and water development that shaped the West.

Norton cited a list of well-known Colorado reservoirs that Aspinall wrangled that has allowed the Western Slope to thrive and feed the growth of the Front Range.

“Aspinall was a conservative, pro-development Democrat,” she told the ballroom audience. “Many of today’s Democrats would say he’s a right-wing Republican.”

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.