Babbitt's Interior

As the White House flips and flops, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt takes his environmental losses and victories in stride. Is his stoicism a necessary virtue or a political vice?

Stanford biologist Dennis Murphy recalls his reaction after hearing Babbitt speak to the National Academy of Sciences.

"Manny Lujan [the former Interior secretary] couldn't distinguish between one squirrel and another," says Murphy. "Bruce Babbitt came to the breakfast and talked about the taxonomy of subspecies. . . . My friggin' jaw dropped."

"Maybe Babbitt raised our expectations too high," says Brock Evans, an environmental lobbyist and attorney who specializes in forest issues. "I really think he got carried away as an activist and a crusader. He got so enthusiastic about doing the right thing, and he thought he could pull it off.

"Maybe there was more naivete there than we thought."
In the early days, the Clinton White House seemed to back Babbitt's efforts at reform.

Almost as soon as Clinton took office, he and Babbitt headed off to Portland, Oregon, where they agreed to a consensus deal with industry, loggers and environmentalists that would reduce logging, retrain loggers and restore some of the endangered species within the forests. A federal judge took a look at the so-called Northwest Forest Plan and lifted a controversial injunction on logging.

The plan proved, Clinton said, that it was possible to have jobs and save trees.

It was a tremendous victory for environmentalists. And, for a year, the Pacific Northwest seemed tranquil.

But in 1995, Clinton signed a "salvage logging" rider to an appropriations bill that, essentially, permitted the cutting of ancient trees on federal lands.

Babbitt had publicly opposed the rider.
Of course, there is no way for those who are not privy to presidential Cabinet meetings to know, exactly, how hard Bruce Babbitt pushed Clinton not to sign the rider. And he won't say.

"The secretary is one of the most loyal members of the cabinet," Babbitt spokesperson Stephanie Hanna says. "You're not going to get me to say the secretary was right, and the president was wrong."

Environmentalists were bitterly disappointed, even though the administration now says it made a terrible mistake and is ordering careful monitoring of "salvage" logging in the Northwest.

In 1993, Clinton, acting on Babbitt's advice, had included a hike in grazing fees and mining royalties in his first budget proposal. There was a clear message in the budget. To increase such fees, the laws would have to be modified.

What environmentalists don't understand is why the Clinton White House abandoned Babbitt so quickly when Western politicians opposed his reforms. After all, at that time, the Democrats controlled Congress, and Babbitt had the backing of powerful Eastern newspapers, including the New York Times.

But Babbitt had failed to gauge the political power of ranching and mining interests in the West. He had long thought that urban voters in the West would favor his reforms and override ranching and mining interests. But Democratic senators from states with powerful mining and ranching lobbies persuaded Clinton to withdraw the proposals from his budget.

"They [Clinton and Babbitt] tried too much too soon," says Jim Lyon, a lobbyist for the Mineral Policy Center, an activist group that has for years attempted to reform the 1872 mining law. The ancient law forces the Department of the Interior to sell land worth billions to mining companies for $5 an acre or less.

Lyon says Babbitt probably should have focused first on reforming the mining law because Americans still have "warm-and-fuzzy feelings about cowboys," a feeling that Western ranching interests exploited when threatened with higher grazing fees.

"Several members of Babbitt's staff told me they horribly miscalculated when they picked grazing as an issue," says Colorado livestock industry activist Ken Spann. "In retrospect, they said, they should have picked mining."

All of this is not to say Babbitt didn't keep trudging forward--at least on some fronts. As Secretary of the Interior, he repeatedly embarrassed mining companies by bringing press attention to the 1872 law. "He's done an admirable job," says Lyon. "He's used his position from the bully pulpit to expand on the outrageousness of this law time and time again when he's had to sign these patents."

And when grazing fees were removed from the Clinton budget, Babbitt reformed grazing policies administratively. In the end, Interior adopted new regulations governing grazing preference, water rights and range improvement. "Resource Advisory Councils," local groups of ranchers, environmentalists and other "stake holders," would use consensus on some land use decisions.

Many in the livestock industry were furious. Bumper stickers saying "Bobbitt Babbitt" appeared on pickup trucks.

The regulations "put the heavy thumb of federal government on the operators, which will result in more of them going out of business, which will result in less land being grazed," says Myers of the Public Lands Council.

Lawyers representing the livestock industry challenged the regulations in federal court, and managed to have about 30 percent of them overturned. The Department of the Interior is expected to appeal the ruling in September.

If he made a political mistake by taking on both mining and grazing at once, Babbitt won't acknowledge it.

He points out that in 1993, the Department of the Interior asked Congress for three things: an expansion of the national park system in California deserts, a reform of grazing regulations and a change in mining laws on federal lands.

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