Bruce Babbitt, the two-term Interior secretary under President Clinton, says he isn't looking for a job in the Obama administration. Good thing, because after last week, he probably wouldn't be welcome. In an under-noticed speech at the National Press Club, Babbitt criticized President Obama's record on land and water conservation , and in an interview before the speech, he argued that the president has ceded the issue to House Republicans determined to undo generations of conservation policy.
Babbitt's point is not just that the president should use his powers under the Antiquities Act to protect more federal lands — it's that Obama should not be willing to trade away those and other powers, which presidents have used to protect precious national landmarks for decades, in a budget deal with House Republicans.
Babbitt pointed to GOP policy riders in the April continuing resolution that kept the government open, one of which defunded an Interior Department program that would have studied federal land to determine whether they require legal protections. And Republicans lawmakers, he warned, still want to chip away at the president's power to declare national monuments and to remove restrictions on the millions of acres protected as wilderness study areas, among other things. Which they might be able to do if those sympathetic to environmental concerns keep quiet about conservation during budget negotiations.
The White House, on the other hand, can point to policy that Democrats didn’t allow into the April continuing resolution, such as measures that would have limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate pollution. Or to the fact that the House didn’t end up trying to dismantle the Antiquities Act to the extent that seemed possible earlier this year.
Haven't heard about any of this? That is a big part of Babbitt's argument — and perhaps the most interesting — which contains a critique of the environmental movement that applies far beyond the policy particulars. Many environmentalists have become so focused — understandably — on climate change that other concerns have gotten less emphasis than they would have in earlier decades. You don't have to agree with Babbitt's criticism of the White House or the precise balance between conservation and exploitation of natural resources he prefers to welcome his determination to bring more attention to under-appreciated issues of land and water conservation as budget talks continue, or to recognize that wilderness on land and at sea has been a casualty of climate change.