With the Virgin Islands-friendly Clinton administration on its way out, the Bush administration is setting the groundwork for a new regime in the Interior Department, and the impact of that on the territory is unclear.
V.I. Delegate to Congress Donna Christian Christensen and other territorial delegates met with the Bush-Cheney transition leader for Interior, Thomas Sansonetti, via conference call Friday morning. Among the topics discussed was keeping the White House Interagency Group on Insular Affairs intact, Christensen said.
In 1999, Clinton acknowledged that the Virgin Islands, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa have unequal representation in the federal process compared to states, so he created the IGIA.
The IGIA has the responsibility for the coordination, formation and interpretation of federal policies affecting the territories, with direct input from the insular areas. Whether that effort will continue under Bush is unknown, Christensen said.
Along with the IGIA issue, Christensen said that assistance with economic development is key if the Virgin Islands is to dig itself out of its economic hole.
"It was really a substantive meeting about how to structure the administration in regard to the territories," Christensen said, adding that Sansonetti suggested that the incoming administration elevate the governance of territorial affairs to the level of an assistant secretary.
Christensen said Sansonetti promised to try to arrange a meeting as soon as possible with Vice President-elect Dick Cheney and Bushs Interior secretary nominee, Gale Norton.
Norton, however, faces a tough nomination process in Congress as the person who would oversee more than 500 million acres of federal land, including the National Park Service, protecting endangered species and managing the insular areas.
Norton was a political appointee in the Reagan administration at the Agriculture Department, then as associate solicitor at Interior where she was a protege of Reagans controversial Interior secretary, James Watt. Nortons last public sector position was as the attorney general of Colorado from 1991 to 1999.
Most environmentalists blanch at the idea of Norton, 46, taking the helm of Interior. For one, she supports Bushs position of opening part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling. In 1998 she formed the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, which is supported by mining and chemical manufacturing interests. She also worked as an attorney for the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation, which Watt founded. The foundation has fought several of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitts land management policies over the past eight years.
Norton has recently been criticized for comments she made in 1996 saying the South lost too much in the Civil War. Supporters, however, contend she was speaking in the context of states' rights, which jibes with the Republican view on land-use issues, particularly resource extraction on public lands, a stand being made on the local level.
Democrat Christensen said her impression is that Norton has strong support from Cheney. But because of the territorys relationship with Interior, Christensen was wary of blasting the nominee.
"Its always very difficult as a territory to decide how strongly to begin fighting against somebody. Its going to be a tough fight," Christensen said. "This and the (attorney general nominee John) Ashcroft nomination are the toughies. Theyre not going to give it up easily. If its not Norton, its going to be someone similar."
Joel Tutein, superintendent of the National Park Service units on St. Croix, which are under the umbrella of Interior, said that outgoing Secretary Babbitt was very involved with the Virgin Islands parks. Babbitt visited the territory three times, which Tutein said ultimately translated into more recognition and funding. As far as Norton goes, Tutein said he will take a wait-and-see attitude.
"Babbitt made us feel very much part of the larger national park system," he said. "Wed like to see a continuance of that inclusion."
St. Croix, however, does have a connection with Republican presidential administrations. In 1992, former President George Bush, the president-elects father, signed legislation that created the Salt River Bay National Historic Park and Reserve.
"I believe there will be a connection with the park unit down here because the father brought in the park and the son will now have an opportunity to expand on it," Tutein said.