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How Bruce Babbitt took the Real West to Washington



High Country News Publisher Ed Marston caught up with former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt on Jan. 20, his last day in office. What follows are excerpts from that interview, which first appeared in High Country News (, a bi-weekly newspaper that covers the West's communities and natural resource issues.

Ed Marston: Is it hectic for you today?

Bruce Babbitt: Well, we'd had a lot of things that had been in the pipeline for five, six or seven months, and yeah, actually, we've got a lot to do. I signed documents creating a million acres of new wildlife refuges just last night.

Marston: Looking back on what is now almost a full eight years, was there a high point?

Babbitt: Sure. I think the high point has been the last 12 months. All the hard work of those early years -- the really tough slogging around, working on Habitat Conservation Plans, working to lay the groundwork for these [new national] monuments -- all came together.

Marston: Tell me if there was a low point.

Babbitt: Well, the first two years were pretty bumpy. Certainly the grazing fight in 1993 was not one of our best moments. I came into office that first day to find that the Office of Management and Budget had already penciled the grazing fee and the mining fee increases into the budget. They didn't even bother to consult with us, so we were stuck with opening that battle on a ground not of our choosing. Then, to make matters worse, two or three months later the White House unilaterally -- without talking to us -- pulls the grazing fee off the table.

Marston: And that was what Jay Hair, then head of the National Wildlife Federation, called "date rape."

Babbitt: Environmentalists were furious. I simply had to bite my lip. We moved on through the year and actually got a deal worked in Congress that would have resolved it legislatively. But the word came down from the White House that they had no interest in this. So at the end of that first year, I had to basically carry around knives in my back. That wasn't one of our great moments, [although] we ultimately got the grazing regulations out [administratively] and got them resolved.

Marston: You spent a lot of time during the first couple of years working with public-land ranchers, even though by numbers they're tiny -- 20,000 or so. Should you have just said, "To heck with public-land grazing, I'm going to go on and deal with much more important issues"?

Babbitt: Absolutely not. Grazing issues are enormously important. I would have dealt with them at any scenario because, of the hundreds of millions of acres of public lands, on 90 percent of them the primary activity is grazing. The environmental issues are the ones that count. And leading with the fee issue distorted the important values. The real issue is the condition of the land, and it took us a long time to bring that one back to the forefront and to go through the regulatory process of putting out new regulations.

Marston: Just before he was re-elected in fall 1996, President Clinton declared his first national monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante. Was that important?

Babbitt: The important thing about the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was not only the declaration of the landscape, but the decision to make it a monument managed by the Bureau of Land Management. In 100 years of use of the [Antiquities] Act, presidents have reflexively used it to declare national monuments and then transfer them over to the National Park Service.

When this one came along, I said to the president, "We ought to do this differently. Because, by continually robbing the BLM of its 'crown jewels,' we're reinforcing this kind of defeatist image that the BLM is nothing but livestock and mining." Of the 20-some-odd monuments that have been declared by the president since then, I think 19 of them have remained in the BLM.

Marston: Why is it that you have a soft spot for the BLM, which is on everyone's list of bad agencies?

Babbitt: The environmentalists have demonized the BLM over the years as a sort of doormat for the mining and grazing industry. If you spend all of your time demonizing an agency, ultimately your predictions will come true.

Marston: But you must have seen something about the BLM the environmentalists didn't see.

Babbitt: Well, sure, I grew up with the BLM on all sides of where we ranched, where I went to school. And what I knew then, and know now, is that the BLM is an agency full of a lot of different kinds of people, and many of them would be happy to perform to higher standards. What they need is some leadership and an opportunity and some incentive.

Marston: Is there a chance that these national monuments will turn out to be meaningless gestures, that Congress in the next administrations could just ignore them, and they'll die?

Babbitt: It depends upon the public. Now, we hear a lot of big, chest-thumping talk from members of Congress [about overturning them]. If history is any guide, it won't be done. The monuments established by presidents -- Republicans and Democrats over the 100 years -- thrived, all of them. I think that public support will translate into an adequate level of attention. And, mark my words, the people who are out there opposing these monuments, 10 years from now will be saying that it was their idea; they'll be claiming credit for it.

Marston: Was that your experience with Grand Staircase-Escalante?

Babbitt: Well, [Grand Staircase-Escalante] is sort of the poster child of controversy, but look what's happened. First of all, I sat down with the governor of Utah and we worked out a deal to exchange all of the inholdings out of that 2 million acres of land. That's something that hasn't even been done yet in most national parks. We got rid of all the coal issues in that monument. The coal companies were claiming they had billions of dollars' worth of minerals there. We settled them out for $10, $20, $30 million. The oil and gas guys were squawking about what a bonanza there was. I was so confident in that case there was nothing there, I just said, "You all go out and drill." I didn't get a degree in geology for nothing. So they went out and did some drilling and relinquished their leases.

Marston: Looking at all the new monuments and the ban on roading in the national forests, were these part of an overall strategy?

Babbitt: Well, it's Clinton-style governance, which means that it would be an overstatement to say that it is tidy, with uniform lines, authority and delegation. That said, I think there are some common strands, certainly in terms of the use of the Antiquities Act.

Marston: You came into office after 12 years of Republican control of Interior. One of your predecessors, James Watt, said he had made changes in Interior that would last for a long time. Did you have to spend years changing what Watt and his successors had done?

Babbitt: People go out saying there are all these hidden decrees, deals, and there are loyalists, moles, all through the administration. In truth, it ain't so. We've got civil servants who are dedicated, hard-working folks. I think most of them believe in the conservation mission of this department. Now, my leaving things that they want to undo -- sure, that's the purpose of our tenure. It's called national monuments, it's called the wild-land fire policy, the restoration program for the Everglades, the Cal-Fed process out in California. There's nothing secret about it.

Marston: So when Gale Norton moves into your office, will she be able to get right to work on her approaches?

Babbitt: There is no question that we have changed the regulatory direction of the department in mining, grazing and timber policy, and, for that matter, in energy extraction as well. And they may have a different agenda. But they will have to use the same process we used -- that is, go through a long and public process of NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] compliance, of procedural compliance with the environmental statutes. And that will give the public a look at the proposed changes and the chance to measure them and respond. That's the reason that I'm really quite confident that the important changes will endure: because they have public support.

Marston: Could you tell us the difference in the Endangered Species Act between what it was when you came into the office and what it is today?

Babbitt: My predecessors had written off the Endangered Species Act. They had said, "This act won't work. There's no way that we can find a balance between commodity production and protection of endangered species." They said, "We're going to invoke this emergency God Squad," as they called it, and authorize the extinction of the spotted owl.

The act in 1983 was amended to authorize Habitat Conservation Plans, in which you would look across a whole landscape and say, "If we can figure out a way to protect 95 percent of the remaining habitat, you can use the other 5." When we came into office, that provision had been on the books for 10 years, and they had done precisely 14 of these, covering a couple thousand acres. They just hadn't used it. What we've done in the last eight years is, I think, 300 of them covering something like 20 million acres. We said, "This can work." It can't work by having ideological arguments in Congress. What you've gotta do is go out into the coastal plain of Southern California, or into the southern long-leaf pine forests, or into the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, and sit down and get out the maps and get the biologists out and walk the landscape and stare the developers in the eye and say, "You have to do it differently."

Marston: But given the ecological crisis that we face, is there room for these kinds of accommodations?

Babbitt: Well, if you had tried to maintain, as some of the environmentalists have, that, once a species is listed, not one square yard of its habitat can be disturbed, the act would have been repealed. I think some of the environmental groups have never quite, to this day, figured that out.

Marston: What was your relationship with the environmentalists?

Babbitt: I would say it was a love-hate relationship. The environmentalists' job is to move the goalpost. Whenever you get near them [the goal posts], they [the environmentalists] celebrate briefly, and then they say you haven't done enough. It's part of the job. I must say, the one big transformation coming on is [that] the environmental movement is going regional and going local and our great successes have been to get out on the landscape and get working on a particular problem. You don't look to Washington for an environmental group. You look for the environmental groups that are out on the land.

Marston: You often describe the West as a Kabuki drama. What does that mean?

Babbitt: We tend to argue the future by simply adopting the costumes, the masks and the rhetoric of the past, notwithstanding the fact that the West is a very different place, and each decade sort of reinvents itself and heads in new directions.

Marston: And do you think we are caught up in an endless cycle?

Babbitt: Well, it might be a longer cycle than I would have thought when I first went into public life 25 years ago. Basically the Western debate is between the commodity producers, who think of themselves as on a 19th-century commons -- that inexhaustible supply of forage, timber and minerals. And [then] there are a lot of new voices in the West -- the environmental movement, the recreationists, urban areas looking for clean water supplies. And so it will continue.

But public lands really are a unique phenomenon. It is kind of ironic that the United States of America, with our market-based economics, has seen fit to protect this large public-land base, and so it does set up some ideological conflict. You see it all the time from the Cato Institute and all these groups that say "it's an insult" to the No. 1 capitalist economy in the world that we have a public domain.

Marston: Twenty-nine percent of the country.

Babbitt: Yeah, we have lands held in common. The right-wingers are offended by the concept. But the fact is, Americans are pragmatic people, and they know from history that this public-land base is an extraordinary part of our heritage. If you go to Europe -- if you want to go hunting, well, you'd better have a duke or an earl who is a friend, or be very rich, because there's nowhere else for a person to go; the land is all owned, fenced and locked up. Americans have rejected that model, and I think they always will.

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