ANCHORAGE -- Interior Secretary Gale Norton Wednesday defended her choice of Cam Toohey, the former director of a group lobbying to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, to serve as her special assistant for Alaska.
Norton wrapped up a four-day visit that included a visit to the refuge and a meeting with Gwich'in Indians who oppose drilling there.
Toohey's appointment has drawn fire from environmentalists and from Congressman Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts.
During a speech in Anchorage, Norton said she chose Toohey because he represents the views of Alaskans and of the Bush administration, which favors opening the refuge to development. Any drilling there must be approved by Congress.
''As I understand it, it was apparently a mistake for me to choose someone who represented the mainstream views of Alaska as opposed to the mainstream views of Massachusetts,'' Norton said.
In a statement released Monday, Markey called the appointment ''breathtaking in its arrogance toward the public interest, and a new low point for the Bush administration.''
Norton noted that the nonprofit group that Toohey headed since 1996, Arctic Power, is funded by the state.
''Rather than being an industry lobbyist, Cam Toohey is representative of the public, a voice of Alaska citizens,'' Norton said.
''He joins the president and I in pledging to conserve Alaska's vast resources for future generations of Americas to cherish and enjoy.''
The Interior Department manages 270 million acres of land in Alaska and oversees the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In a speech to civic and business leaders Norton also spoke about her meeting Monday with Gwich'in Indians in Arctic Village. The Gwich'in oppose oil development in the refuge.
''We received a welcome that was far different from the antagonism that some had led us to expect,'' Norton said.
During her visit to the remote village in the southern foothills of the Brooks Range, more than a dozen Gwich'in leaders and residents spoke about the importance of the caribou as a source of food and spiritual sustenance. They also talked about their desire to pass on their caribou hunting traditions to future generations.
''If the group's goal is to continue their subsistence lifestyle for generations, that is certainly their choice. But that choice also impacts others,'' Norton said. ANWR development affects not just those who live near the refuge, but all Americans, she said.
''The children throughout America, their lives will be affected by these decisions as well -- whether they will have heat for their homes, whether they will have jobs in a prosperous economy,'' Norton said. ''This is the type of perplexing issue that Americans must face.''
On Tuesday, Norton visited the village of Kaktovik on the Arctic Coast. Kaktovik is the only village located within the coastal plain of the refuge, also known as the 10-02 area. The Inupiat Eskimos who live in Kaktovik support drilling for the jobs and economic benefits it would bring.
''Their lands cannot be accessed for energy development because they're in the 10-02 area. The choices of one group are directly related to the choices of another group. And all of that is controlled by decisions made far away by the U.S. Congress,'' Norton said.
This was Norton's third visit to Alaska. She visited the Arctic refuge in late March when it was covered with snow and ice. At that time, she promised to return in summer to see the wildlife for which the refuge is famous and to gather more views on oil development.
During her trip to the refuge Tuesday, Norton saw Dall sheep, a bear and other wildlife. But she did not see the Porcupine caribou herd, which often migrates through the refuge during summer.
The herd gave birth to its calves in the Canadian Arctic this year, not in the area proposed for drilling, she said.
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