Land Sakes!

Clinton Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt lays claim to an environmental legacy. Too bad it's a monumental disappointment.

When it comes to the outdoors, Bruce Babbitt and Bill Clinton couldn't be more different. The former Secretary of the Interior is a connoisseur of nature -- a hiker, a biker, a camper, a guy more comfortable amidst the rattlesnakes that inhabit his native Arizona desert than the variety that thrive in Washington, D.C.

Clinton's idea of a nature hike is a walk across the putting green. And for most of his eight years in office, that's the sort of distance the president kept from environmental causes. But in the administration's final months, Babbitt seized the political opportunity to make hay for both himself and his president -- to create an environmental legacy rivaling that of Teddy Roosevelt, in the form of national monuments. The president, who specialized in platitudes and ceremony, bit hard.

In all, Clinton and Babbitt designated 18 monuments, including several in Arizona. From Los Angeles to New York City, journalists flexed their fingers and typed up glowing tributes to these men who fearlessly championed our environment, preserving beautiful, priceless lands for future generations.

To be sure, Bruce Babbitt did a lot of good for the environment as Secretary of the Interior. But his legacy has some brown patches amid the green.
To be sure, Bruce Babbitt did a lot of good for the environment as Secretary of the Interior. But his legacy has some brown patches amid the green.

But as is often the case in political stories, the subtext holds a different message. The land Clinton preserved as monuments was not wrested from private hands, but instead already belonged to the federal government. Much of it was already designated as wilderness, meaning it was protected from off-road vehicles, mining and other dangers that make a monument designation so meaningful.

In other words, the move was more about photo ops than significant public policy. And while George W. Bush and his new Interior Secretary, Gale Norton, have rightly realized that reversing the designations would be political suicide, they know they need not bother. Clinton and Babbitt were in such a rush to name the monuments, they didn't find the time or clout to get funds appropriated to ensure the areas are properly cared for.

It won't be tough for Bush to bend the rules and allow for oil drilling on monument land -- something he's already announced he'll do.

So much for a lasting legacy. The real story of what happened to America's public lands under the Clinton Administration wasn't told in those monument-dedication speeches. Instead, it's buried in reports by the Government Accounting Office and the inspectors general of several agencies and environmental watchdogs who haven't let Bruce Babbitt's reputation as a nature lover lull them into the assumption that there were no bumps along the secretary's eight-year trail at the Interior.

Inspector general reports point to millions of dollars lost in land deals struck by the Interior's Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service. But the most significant trouble is found at the agency's Bureau of Land Management.

Government investigations and anecdotal information reveal that Bruce Babbitt's BLM approved land trades with shoddy appraisals, conducted unauthorized land sales and then could not account for the millions of dollars, allowed shady legislated land trades to sail through Congress, and -- in the finest tradition of Clintonesque politics -- made land trades in what were obvious attempts to make up to special interests like mining companies that felt gypped by administration environmental policies.

One environmentalist claims that BLM lands are in worse shape than they were when Clinton took office, thanks to the agency's negligence with regard to monitoring the damage wrought by off-road vehicles.

During his tenure, Babbitt brushed off requests for action by environmental groups, the GAO and even a congressman.

He did not respond to New Times' request for an interview. (Babbitt has not announced his long-term plans. He's reportedly writing a book, and has accepted positions as counsel to the Washington, D.C., office of the law firm Latham and Watkins and on the board of the World Wildlife Fund.)

To be sure, Babbitt did a lot of good for the environment. He reintroduced wolves into the wild, fought to preserve Colorado River water and save coral reefs.

But when it comes to public lands, under Babbitt's tutelage in many cases the Department of the Interior continued a pattern of poor economic and ecological choices. The environmental community lamented Bush's appointment of Gale Norton as Babbitt's successor, given her association with Reagan-era enviro bad man James Watt, but some worry that things can't get much worse.

BLM is responsible for more than 250 million acres of public lands -- a tremendous amount. Clinton only preserved 4.5 million acres as monument land. What happened to the rest?


Janine Blaeloch wants to know. She founded the Seattle-based nonprofit Western Lands Exchange Project four and a half years ago, a group devoted to analyzing and -- in just about all cases -- opposing federal land exchanges.

BLM is responsible for stewardship, for regulating the limited grazing, mining and other business that takes place on its lands. But the real action happens in the land-exchange process. Between 1993 and 1999, BLM traded about 750,000 acres, in exchange for about that same acreage. Figures for 2000 were not available.

The idea behind land exchanges is that the federal government trades land that another party wants (usually for development or some other business purpose) for environmentally sensitive land, often a habitat for endangered species or property that abuts land already owned by the feds. The exchanges are supposed to be financially equal.

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