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.
Janine Blaeloch's Western Land Exchange Project is devoted to uncovering the often ugly truth about government land trades.
Paul Joseph Brown
Janine Blaeloch's Western Land Exchange Project is devoted to uncovering the often ugly truth about government land trades.
George Miller, a California Democrat and former ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, found Babbitt's BLM was reticent to change.
George Miller, a California Democrat and former ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, found Babbitt's BLM was reticent to change.
The Sierra Club's Rob Smith forgives Bruce Babbitt for the Interior's shortfalls under his reign, given the political climate.
The Sierra Club's Rob Smith forgives Bruce Babbitt for the Interior's shortfalls under his reign, given the political climate.

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.

By and large, BLM land exchanges take place in one of two ways: either by the agency itself, or through an act of Congress. If BLM does the trade, detailed appraisals and an environmental-impact assessment are supposed to take place. If Congress does the deal, much of that can be done away with. Either way, the process can be fraught with problems.

Some BLM insiders have been willing to tell their personal tales.

Jack McDonald retired early from BLM in 1999, after 15 years at the agency, most recently as the state of Utah's chief appraiser. McDonald -- a well-known whistle-blower who has made his claims on national television -- says he and his staff were told to look the other way during a land trade between BLM and the state of Utah. McDonald insists the so-called Schools Exchange was a huge rip-off to federal taxpayers, who were in essence giving up valuable land in exchange for much less valuable land -- and all to placate Utah, which had threatened to sue the Clinton Administration because leaders were unhappy about the Escalante Monument that had recently been created in their state.

"If you overpay and overpay and overpay, pretty soon you can't pay for anything else," McDonald says, critical of Babbitt for not trying to get the best deal for the federal taxpayer. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't bug me to watch him ride off into the sunset with his environmental legacy."

McDonald shared information with the Government Accounting Office, which investigated both the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service (the Service is under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture, not Interior, but also conducts land exchanges) and published its conclusions last June: The GAO recommended that land exchanges were so inherently difficult to make fair -- and so screwed up under current practices -- that a moratorium should be placed on all exchanges made by both agencies.

The report was particularly critical of BLM, pointing to a number of land exchanges that appeared to favor the private landowner at the expense of the government. That is not an uncommon accusation in such trades, but this time GAO had several examples in which BLM appraisers, including Jack McDonald, had actually pointed out such discrepancies and had been ignored or transferred from their departments.

In a case involving Phoenix-based Del Webb, GAO found that BLM appraisers had estimated the value of a Nevada trade to favor the developer by $9 million, thanks to an appraisal by an outside consultant -- paid for by Del Webb. It was not until it appeared that the inspector general was about to launch an investigation that the trade was altered and the $9 million discrepancy evened out to a relatively fair trade.

The GAO was particularly critical of a practice that had gone on for years, in which BLM was selling land instead of exchanging it, and keeping the money instead of depositing it in the U.S. Treasury. In a random survey of six state BLM offices, the GAO found more than $10 million in unaccounted funds. According to auditors, when BLM was initially told to cease the practice, BLM employees were told to stop referring to the sales as "sales" or "purchases," and instead to call them "transactions" -- and accept bonds instead of cash as payment.

The GAO report was illuminating for Janine Blaeloch, who has fought for years to review appraisal documents and other paperwork that reveal how fair -- or unfair -- the trades are, with limited success.

Both GAO auditor Sue Ellen Naiberk and Daniel Weiss, chief of staff to U.S. Representative George Miller, a California Democrat and former ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, recall that unlike the Forest Service, BLM was reticent to change.

While the Forest Service immediately responded to Miller's concerns with a lengthy plan of action, "BLM gave us no response," Weiss says. (Actually, that's not true. Babbitt did send Miller a two-page letter last August, but basically to tell him that not much would change.)

BLM has continued to conduct the land sales it now calls transactions, although it is in the early stages of an audit suggested by the GAO. Last year, Congress passed a bill that authorizes BLM to conduct sales and keep some of the proceeds instead of passing them all along to the U.S. Treasury; procedures are still being worked out as to how to implement the new law.

BLM spokesman Rem Hawes says the agency has reviewed its practices and increased requirements for appraisers. He downplays the GAO's findings: "The report frankly focused on overall what are some anomalies."


The Government Accounting Office didn't uncover the only troubling news at Bruce Babbitt's BLM.

In some cases, it appears as though potentially bad land trades were made to placate special interests who were unhappy with other Clinton policies.

"This was part of the Clinton legacy, too -- just bending over all the time," Janine Blaeloch says.

One such example is found in Utah, where officials, including U.S. Representative Jim Hansen, a Republican, were unhappy because Clinton failed to tell them that the Escalante National Monument was coming. To make up for it, activists like Blaeloch contend, land trades were made that give the state millions of dollars in developable land, potentially at a steep cost to federal taxpayers.

Earlier this month, deeds changed hands on the latest such trade, called West Desert. The deal was legislated, but Babbitt and Utah Governor Mike Leavitt cut the bargain. Environmentalists guess that the values are way off, favoring the state of Utah, which, like Arizona, has a state trust that will sell off the land it gets from the federal government.

"It's the worst thing you can possibly imagine," Blaeloch says of the Utah trade. Each side -- state and federal -- hired independent consultants, who announced that each side of the trade was worth $20 million. Blaeloch calls that "patent bullshit," noting that Utah got developable land along an interstate and state highways and a parcel at the gateway to Zion National Park; the feds got land that abuts one of the most toxic sites in the country.

Blaeloch has been battling with the federal government to get access to appraisal documents, and she was recently told she'll receive some of them soon.

Here in Arizona, a state-federal trade is pending. It was orchestrated last year between Babbitt and Governor Jane Hull. An agreement was signed last October, and this year U.S. Representative John Shadegg introduced legislation to make it happen -- once the land is chosen. A map available at the State Land Department identifies dozens of potential sites in the trade, which could include 150,000 acres of state land exchanged for 33,500 acres of BLM land. But so far, the decision-making process has not been made public at all, says Lori Faeth, director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy in Phoenix.

The Nature Conservancy expressed concern early on about one potential site, which would involve a trade of BLM lands around the Hassayampa River Preserve south of Wickenburg, a portion of the river with perennial flow that is home to endangered species.

"We felt that might have a serious impact on the preserve," Faeth says, adding, "We're looking forward to the public process."

The exchange cannot take place without a vote by the people of Arizona, who would have to approve a ballot measure in 2002 allowing for such exchanges. Similar measures have gone down four times in the past.

Blaeloch is concerned about language in Shadegg's bill that would likely make the appraisal process less stringent than the normal federal guidelines used in BLM land exchanges handled directly by the agency.

Mining is another area where environmentalists say Clinton and Babbitt caved to special interests, using land exchanges to soothe sore feelings and strapped bank accounts.

Babbitt came into office with the intention of reforming the 1872 Mining Law, written more than a century ago to make business easier for the mining industry. One provision of the law allows mining on some federal lands at dramatically low costs. Babbitt did not get the reforms he wanted, but he was successful in establishing a moratorium on the patents which allow the mining. It's more expensive to mine on federal land now, but the industry quickly found a way around that problem: Simply do land exchanges, then mining companies will own the land they want.

Peter Galvin, a conservation biologist for the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, is critical of a potential land exchange in Safford, in eastern Arizona, in which Phelps Dodge Mining Co. wants to trade land with BLM. The exchange process has gone on for years. At one point, BLM even allowed Phelps Dodge to pay the salaries of agency employees working on environmental-impact statements.

A BLM spokeswoman says that Phelps Dodge had no input as to the hirings or findings of the employees.

Yet again, this one does not appear to be a good deal for federal taxpayers.

It's estimated that Phelps Dodge would exchange land valued at $4 million for land that -- because of its access to copper ore -- could be worth more than $2 billion.

Bruce Richardson, a spokesman for Phelps Dodge, says that's an unfair assessment.

"That's a classic argument that we hear from that side. And the fact is that the land has no value unless somebody that knows how to mine it can mine it," he says. "It's only valuable if somebody can extract the minerals that are there. The system is such that it allows organizations that have expertise to do that, to be able to invest in that. It is an investment."

Galvin doesn't buy that. "Babbitt took a good step with the patenting moratorium, but didn't take that next step, which was to say these exchanges are a scam, too," he says.


Such tales do not conjure the image of the man Arizona environmentalists came to know and love -- and, in many cases, continue to embrace -- during Babbitt's years as the state's attorney general and governor.

Babbitt campaigned for attorney general in the '70s on the promise that he would clean up corrupt land deals. He was well-meaning, but only marginally successful. But as governor, Babbitt participated in some significant, worthy land trades, preserving hundreds of thousands of acres as federal wilderness and protecting places like the now-named San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area, which environmentalist Rob Smith refers to as a "highway for biological diversity."

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.

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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