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?

"We got two out of three," says Babbitt. "We lost on one."
If he'd asked for only one, he says, he might have gotten nothing at all.
And he says he does not, in any way, feel let down by Clinton.

"This is a very sophisticated game," says Babbitt's brother Charles. "My brother understands political workings on a very sophisticated level. Clinton appointed him to that position because he has a lot of political savvy. Those kinds of people understand that deals have to be made, and that the president's got an agenda, and that sometimes you are going to get clobbered."

Then he adds, "But speaking as an environmentalist, I think the administration has a lot of making up to do this next time around."

In a sagebrush-dotted canyon in Orange County, California, Republican developers, bored reporters and career bureaucrats stand beneath a tent, chatting and eating bagels. They wait for Bruce Babbitt, who is 30 minutes late for the grand opening of the Nature Reserve of Orange County.

Finally, a rental car rolls in. Babbitt, dressed in jogging shoes, khakis and a plaid shirt, is beaming. Just four months before the election, he's managed to pull off a difficult Endangered Species Act agreement among developers, government officials and environmentalists in one of the most Republican counties in California. Babbitt gives a speech. He poses for photographs. He signs autographs. He jokes stiffly with a billionaire land developer in cowboy boots.

Babbitt has often said the Endangered Species Act, enforced by Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service, is one of the most important laws in the nation. The law attempts to rescue endangered plants and animals whose tenuous existence signals that entire ecosystems are at risk. Opponents of the act say that it is too burdensome on landowners, that it's used as an arbitrary weapon by the federal government, which can stall construction if the government finds an endangered species on a developer's land.

In Orange County and across the country, Babbitt has taken advantage of a 1982 amendment to the law that allows the Department of the Interior to negotiate for conservation concessions from developers and landowners.

The Orange County agreement creates a 38,000-acre nature preserve in the heart of populous Orange County. It is hoped that the preserve, much of which was donated by billionaire developer Donald Bren, an active Republican, will protect about 40 at-risk species, including a tiny bird called the California gnatcatcher. In return, Bren and his Irvine Company can develop other land with the Interior Department's assurance that development won't be stalled.

"We have been implementing these endangered species plans across the country," Babbitt says, but the California plan "is tremendously complex and really satisfying. It's never been done before. It's absolutely a brand-new innovation."

While mainstream environmentalists generally endorse the Orange County experiment, saying that action is better than inaction, critics say Babbitt sold out to win Republican votes, that the science backing the plan has yet to be thoroughly worked out.

"We've had Bruce's department always looking at enforcement of the Endangered Species Act with one eye on not making the Californians mad at you," Babbitt's brother Charles says.

But other environmentalists say Babbitt's plans are better than wasting time debating while species disappear.

"The complaint about science has been made in every endangered species controversy by someone, whether it's the environmental community or the regulated community," says Michael Bean, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. "But the key question is not whether the science is perfect . . . The key point is whether there is sufficient science to go forward."

Many knowledgeable observers say the plans are simply too new to judge, but Babbitt is convinced his consensus-based, multispecies, large-scale conservation plans are "absolutely a brand-new start as significant as the creation of the national park system."

He cites other consensus deals Interior has promoted: the Northwest Forest Plan, now significantly weakened; a deal he brokered in the Florida Everglades (open to significant criticism because sugar farmers have to pay only half of an estimated $600 million in initial cleanup and restoration costs, while taxpayers pay the other half); an agreement with private landowners to save the red-cockaded woodpecker in the South; and a deal to save wetlands in the Sacramento River delta.

Look at what we've done, he says; it's absolutely remarkable. It's changing history. How can people even suggest Bill Clinton pulled the towel out from under the environmental movement?

President Clinton twice considered Bruce Babbitt as a nominee for justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Both times, Babbitt called friends in Arizona and said it might happen.

"On the first occasion," says Babbitt's friend and prominent Phoenix attorney Paul Eckstein, "I think the president was inclined to appoint him. He talked to Bruce seriously about it."

But Babbitt was overlooked the first time, at least in part because the conservative Washington Times wrote a story alleging, among other things, that Arizona officials were investigating whether Babbitt had asked mobsters to erase gambling debts.

What the article didn't say was that those allegations had surfaced years before, had been investigated and had been found to be false by the U.S. Attorney's Office and the state attorney general.

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