Land Sakes!

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

Babbitt has always loved land deals, says Smith, the longtime director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club.

"That's the way to get his attention -- to roll out the map," he says. "Bruce Babbitt seems to have a love affair with public lands. Every time in his public life, as governor or as private citizen, certainly as Interior Secretary, he has been involved in saving public lands and saving biological diversity. . . . And in many ways, being Secretary of the Interior was the place that he always was heading even though it was not necessarily the place he was seeking."

By the time Babbitt traveled to Little Rock in 1992 to meet with Clinton's transition team, he knew public land preservation was more complicated than it had been in the 1980s, when he was governor of Arizona. Back then, land was plentiful and no one was talking about urban sprawl. But by the early 1990s, most of the easy trades had already been made.

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.

It's well known that Babbitt had been hoping to be named U.S. trade representative; he settled for the Interior spot. Decisions affecting public lands weren't the only politically charged calls he had to make as secretary, and the combination of a soon-Republican Congress and an unsupportive president made it difficult to achieve many of his goals.

Even with such caveats, Babbitt was not the kind of public-lands steward that many had been hoping for.

Until recently, Scott Groene ran an organization called the BLM Wilderness Campaign, designed to increase the protected lands owned by BLM. In the '70s, BLM was ordered by Congress to study its lands and protect the more environmentally valuable property as wilderness study areas. The process was never completed -- for example, no land in Alaska has ever been surveyed -- and thus the potential has been missed to protect tens of millions of acres.

Groene's group organized a petition of 100 environmental groups to encourage Babbitt and BLM to renew the surveying process. It would happen on a case-by-case basis, as land was considered for trades, and thus wouldn't cost the government much, Groene explains. But sensitive land would have one more safeguard against development or other disruption.

He says Babbitt "just ignored" the BLM Wilderness Campaign's plea.

BLM spokesman Rem Hawes acknowledges that.

"The secretary felt that clearly he was focusing on protecting some areas in a monument way, and reopening all of the wilderness inventories -- it's not something that could have been accomplished in his time frame."

Groene also gripes that for the most part, the Babbitt-era BLM ignored off-road vehicles, one of the most significant causes of damage to public lands.

"If you just look at the condition of BLM lands before and after the Clinton Administration, there's not much of a change, and in some ways it's probably worse," he says.

Hawes says that last year, BLM came up with a strategy whereby local BLM offices can identify damaged lands and possibly stop off-roading.

Too little, too late, as far as Groene's concerned.

"It'll make no difference. It was just for show," he says.

Folks like Rob Smith forgive Babbitt for the Interior's shortfalls under his reign, given the political climate. But even Smith admits that land exchanges are not always the best way to preserve land. Too many variables.

There is an alternative: Congress can simply purchase land, using the Land and Water Conservation Fund, created in the early 1970s and funded with offshore oil royalties. Agencies including BLM and the Forest Service can apply for money to buy sensitive lands. Until recently, Congress balked at fully funding the program, and Smith says Clinton wasn't willing to put on pressure. But now there's a commitment to a higher level of funding for the next five years -- including a current funding level of $1.2 billion.

Even if such purchases increase federal land holdings, and thus the costs of caring for them, it's worth it, says Smith, adding that the land-exchange process "pits one piece of land against another, when the fact is you really want both of them."

"You can always find more money," he says, "but land they've stopped making."

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