Pragmatic Critic is Set to be Interior's Next Landlord
By Tom Kenworthy
When Interior Secretary-designate Bruce Babbitt recently paid a courtesy call on Sen. Larry E. Craig, the conservative Republican lawmaker from Idaho led off with a pointed question:
Which Babbitt will be in charge of federal land policy? Craig asked. The one who served as Arizona governor and dealt pragmatically with agriculture and business interests? Or the one who more recently chaired the League of Conservation Voters and supported fundamental changes affecting the mining, ranching and timber industries?
With Babbitt nominated to become the overseer of some 500 million acres of parks, rangeland, wildlife refuges, forests and recreation areas, the question is hardly academic in the West.
After 12 years of generally getting their way through two administrations, those who favor using federal lands for traditional economic purposes now face a potential landlord whose recent public record suggests he is going to rewrite the rules of occupancy and raise the rent.
Perhaps no other member of President-elect Clinton's Cabinet has been as unsparingly critical of the department he will head as Babbitt, 54, the former Democratic presidential contender who today goes before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for his confirmation hearing.
What does Babbitt think of Interior? It's "a mess," he told an interviewer in November.
What are his views of one of the department's main agencies, the Bureau of Land Management, which controls 270 million acres of western land? "Tainted by politics and incompetence in upper management and heavily influenced by mining and livestock constituencies," he wrote two years ago.
How about the Bureau of Reclamation, the once muscular agency whose dams and water projects made agricultural development of much of the arid West possible? "Its practices have been the most environmentally destructive of all the public land agencies," he wrote. "It seems to know the subsidized price of everything and the long-term value of nothing."
What about two other pillars of the western economy, mining and timber?
"It is none too soon to ask why the mining of gold for monetary speculation, rings and necklaces should be allowed everywhere on the public domain," Babbitt has written. As for the U.S. Forest Service (which is under the control of the Department of Agriculture, but which Babbitt can strongly influence through enforcement of the Endangered Species Act), he described it as an agency that has been "pulverized" and undermined by political demands to produce timber from its 191 million acres of national forest lands.
Little wonder, then, that the appointment of Babbitt has set toes tapping in anticipation at groups such as The Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, and worry beads jiggling at groups that represent miners, cattlemen, irrigators and the wood products industry.
Babbitt favors moving federal land policies away from the "multiple use" philosophy that he says has been a failure because it favored extractive industries like mining, timber, oil and gas, and ranching. After all, this is someone who dismissed the Sagebrush Rebellion as a "horse opera."
"The next step in the evolution of public land use policy," he has written, "is to replace multiple use management with a new concept dominant public use that gives priority to recreation, wildlife and watershed uses. Dominant public use would be a mandate to reconsider destructive resource exploitation that is of marginal economic importance."
But those who worked closely with Babbitt during his nine years as governor in Arizona, where he faced a conservative Republican legislature, caution that his performance at Interior will be unlikely to satisfy environmentalists' high-flying hopes or confirm the gnawing fears of commodity interests that rely on using federal lands.
"He has a really good sense of where he can push for progress and get away with it politically," said David Baron, assistant director for the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, a state environmental law group.
A shy and cerebral man by nature who is excited by the power of ideas, Babbitt was introduced to the American public through his unsuccessful 1988 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. He tried unorthodoxy and candor supporting the taxing of some Social Security benefits and limiting home mortgage deductions and flamed out early.
What remained mostly hidden in that campaign is a quality that takes on far greater importance as Babbitt prepares to tackle a thicket of difficult issues from endangered species to American Indians: an almost mystical reverence for the land of the West.
Trained as a geologist before he became a lawyer and moved from the civil rights and anti-poverty movements into politics, Babbitt has deep roots in Arizona, where his grandfather and his brothers settled in 1886 and established the beginnings of a commercial and ranching empire centered in Flagstaff.
Friends and associates say Babbitt has both an intellectual and intuitive grasp of the resource conflicts that always have dogged the West and that are becoming ever sharper as the region becomes more urban and suburban. "He has a real sense of what stewardship really means," says National Audubon Society President Peter A.A. Berle.
Babbitt not only has read Edward Abbey (who accused him in a 1985 broadside of being "a flunky for the developers") but has hiked, rafted and bicycled through much of the red rock canyon country the late author of "Desert Solitaire" wrote about.
With his training in geology and geophysics, Babbitt also has written and edited works on the Grand Canyon. Asked by the Wall Street Journal during his unsuccessful 1988 presidential campaign what book had influenced him the most, Babbitt cited Aldo Leopold's "A Sand County Almanac," a conservationist bible that he said "awakened in me a sense of ethic about the land."
"This is someone who understands the poetry of the American West as well as the geography," said a former aide. "He is to the West the way some of Faulkner's characters are to the South."
Babbitt's record suggests he would push the reform envelope as far as the politics permit. How far is unknown, but President-elect Clinton already has expressed to another person considered for his Cabinet some concern about alienating the West, where Clinton made strong inroads in the election.
Threading that needle is what environmentalists say Babbitt did best in Arizona. Though they were sometimes disappointed in him (he, like almost every Arizona politician, supported the massive Central Arizona Project that delivers Colorado River water to thirsty farms and cities up to 190 miles away), they also say he achieved far more than was thought possible in the conservative state.
Babbitt's environmental monuments are laws protecting the supply and quality of Arizona's ground water, regarded as major achievements in a part of the world where water scarcity produces epic political battles. And though he refused entreaties from environmentalists to join them in a suit to shut down a massive, polluting copper smelter, he achieved the same result by working behind the scenes.
"He could only speak out on so many things before he did more harm than good," said Rob Smith, the Sierra Club's Southwest representative. "He picked his shots carefully."
On the ground-water legislation, Babbitt gets good grades from the environmental community, but also from agricultural interests who had the most to lose. "In retrospect, I can't say agriculture was dealt with unfairly in that process," said Robert S. Lynch, a Phoenix attorney who represents irrigators and utilities.
Babbitt, say Lynch and others, has a rare talent for negotiating complex resource disputes, a trait that could quickly come into play during an upcoming "summit" to resolve the Pacific Northwest's agony over timber and the northern spotted owl. He comes to the table better prepared than anyone else, they say, and keeps everyone locked up until they've quit posturing and worked out their real differences.
"I spent two unhappy weeks in his conference room," recalled Lynch of one negotiation over water legislation. "He withdrew the donuts on the third day. He just wasn't going to let us leave that room or eat until we got it finished."
© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company