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?

By Terry Greene Sterling

published: August 22, 1996

Richard Anderson and Bruce Babbitt were the best of pals growing up in Flagstaff during the 1950s. They lived half a block away from each other, played childhood games together, skied together, went to school together. And one day, Anderson remembers, he punched Bruce Babbitt in the face.
The youngsters, then students at Flagstaff High School, were attending Arizona Boys State, a legislative and governmental seminar for teenagers interested in public service. During the course of "a horrible political argument," Anderson says, his cerebral friend remained calm and controlled, showed no emotion, pressed his point over and over.

"I got furious," says Anderson. "Finally, I smacked him. He maintained control, looked at me and walked away. I felt very badly about that and still do."

Outwardly, at least, Bruce Babbitt has always been a measured, guarded person--the type who can take a punch and merely blink and walk away.

That imperturbability has served him well throughout his political life--as Arizona attorney general, two-term Arizona governor, failed presidential candidate and Secretary of the Interior, where he has endured a thrashing from all sides.

President Clinton twice came to the verge of nominating him to be a Supreme Court justice, only to pass him over both times.

Babbitt accepted with stoic grace what most saw as a humiliating snub.
He arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1993 with great plans, initially backed by the Clinton administration, for broad reforms of arcane grazing, mining and timber regulations on federal lands.

But some of those hoped-for reforms failed after the White House withdrew support, buckling to pressure from Democratic senators from mining and ranching states.

Then, in 1995, Clinton signed a rider to an appropriations bill that sabotaged federal logging restrictions--restrictions that had been agreed to in the Northwest Forest Plan, a much-publicized agreement in which Babbitt played a key advisory role.

As a result, neither environmentalists nor industry groups have been happy with Babbitt's performance at Interior.

Babbitt's brother Charles, a Phoenix attorney and environmentalist, says, "It's no secret that a lot of the stuff that made environmentalists mad was played against the backdrop of Clinton getting reelected."

William Myers, director of the Public Lands Council, a lobbying group for the livestock industry, contends that Babbitt has a trust problem. "He says one thing, it sounds good, you feel good about talking to him and everyone is all smiles. And then it will not turn out to be the way he says," Myers says.

Even the Babbitt accomplishments that the White House hasn't undercut--especially those dealing with his search for consensus solutions to Endangered Species Act conflicts--have been criticized by environmentalists, who say the pacts suffer from insufficient science and too much politicking.

Of course, Bruce Babbitt would never say anything publicly about being let down by the White House. The consummate, controlled appointee, Babbitt understands political realities: Clinton withdrew support for grazing and mining reform in 1993 to get Democratic and Republican support on other issues--health care, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the budget.

The idea that Clinton abandoned him, says Babbitt, is simply wrong.
"I'm a big boy," Babbitt said in one of two interviews with New Times. "I was hired to lead these fights, not to sit around and whine about where everybody was. Whatever happened in 1993, I gotta tell ya, he's [Clinton's] there now."

And now, Clinton seems to have rediscovered Babbitt. Especially after White House pollsters learned that the majority of American voters actually do favor strong environmental protection, Babbitt became the point man in the administration's defense against Republican efforts to gut critical environmental laws, including Babbitt's favorite, the Endangered Species Act.

The Republicans have responded with an attack of their own. They will hold hearings next month on the results of a recently released audit that alleges irregularities in three Nevada land swaps handled by the Bureau of Land Management, part of the Department of the Interior. Although no evidence has surfaced suggesting that Babbitt was involved in the swaps, two of the deals involve Arizona companies and the third was put together by a conservancy group that Babbitt once belonged to.

Despite the poor publicity, the White House is not abandoning Babbitt. And Babbitt is standing by Clinton.

Literally.
On the Fourth of July, Babbitt stood near Clinton when the president released a rehabilitated wild eagle into the Maryland sky in what appeared to be little more than a campaign event.

Just the day before, Babbitt had no firm idea that he would be with the president on the Fourth of July. In fact, Babbitt had plans to be in Arizona. But when the president called, Babbitt immediately changed his schedule and raced back to Washington.

After releasing the eagle, the president thanked Babbitt, explaining that the Interior secretary had endured more "personal attacks for standing up for America's environment" than any other member of the administration.

"He has fought a long and sometimes lonely battle," Clinton said.
Everyone applauded, but Clinton's comment raises central questions: Is Bruce Babbitt's willingness to put up with a White House that seems continually to hang him out to dry a sign of political finesse, a recognition of the realities of policy-making at the cabinet level, as his friends suggest? Or does it reveal a chameleonlike flexibility, the ability to subordinate important policy concerns to political expediency and ambition, as his enemies suggest?

Or is Bruce Babbitt a man so guarded and complex that neither friend nor enemy has grasped his essence?

During the course of Bruce Babbitt's political career, journalists have profiled him any number of times. He is often cast favorably, but thinly, as a larger-than-life, archetypal Western character, the intellectually gifted scion of a ranching family who became environmentally enlightened and rode off to Capitol Hill to fight the evils threatening the planet.

Babbitt, who dismisses such characterizations as "superficial," can name only two articles about him that he really likes. One, a 1993 Rolling Stone piece detailing his ideas on environmental reform, he remembers because it made him sound more profound than he recalls being. The second, a piece written by Primary Colors author Joe Klein, appeared in New York magazine following the 1988 presidential campaign. One small section of the article describes Babbitt pulling on a beer in an Iowa bar and asserting that his failures in the campaign drew him closer to his sons, Christopher and TJ, who learned that their struggling father needed their support.

When several of Babbitt's friends are asked to describe him, they all immediately note that he's a devoted parent. And they say he is an eclectic intellectual, an avid reader, a fan of writers Aldo Leopold and Wallace Stegner, a guy who truly has a reverence for the land.

If none of these observations seems to run deep, that may be because Bruce Babbitt has talked publicly about all of them. And although these "public" character traits seem to be genuine, Babbitt has also used them to his political advantage.

It is clear that Babbitt has a real, spiritual connection to land and a passion for the out-of-doors. Reverence for the land showed up in Babbitt's early writings, long before he expressed political ambitions. And as a young man, Babbitt became disenchanted with the Catholic religion and explored spiritual philosophies of Native American friends.

Recently, Babbitt framed one of his political goals--saving and rethinking the Endangered Species Act--in a spiritual context. And religious leaders, traditional allies of the far right, rallied to help defeat a Republican bill that would have gutted the act.

The "newly elected Congress was armed with an agenda that was both hostile to God's creation and determined to dismantle the very legal tools--especially the Endangered Species Act--that allow us to restore it," he said to a religious convention several months ago.

And he meant it.
But even Babbitt's closest friends and relatives are hard-pressed to explain how he really feels about most other things.

"People vastly underestimate his breadth of character and emotion. It is because he is very self-contained and measured," says Fred DuVal, a longtime friend and former gubernatorial staffer who is now a deputy campaign manager for the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign.

"He's very shy, and his reluctance to be emotionally overt comes from his shyness, not from a lack of emotional depth. He's a very sensitive guy, but he's not communicative about his emotions. You learn to read it in his face, his demeanor, his reaction to things."

Babbitt is comfortable having one-on-one conversations about policy and philosophy, but is awkward and clumsy in social situations. Some friends joke that Babbitt fibbed when he admitted, during the 1988 presidential campaign, that he'd tried marijuana years before.

"Bruce has a hard time being one of the guys," a close friend says. "He tries, but it just doesn't come across."

Babbitt himself says not having to go to parties and fund raisers is one of the better things about his Interior job. Friends, meanwhile, say he may be content to soldier along for Clinton because he's lost much of his political ambition. Unless he is nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court or to an ambassadorship, he may have attained his highest political post.

"I'll buy that, I guess," Babbitt says, when asked if his ambitions are diminished.

But he seems uncomfortable when he's queried about emotions, or how he feels, often deflecting the question with a joke or a platitude. "I'm not very introspective," he says, suggesting that he's always been too busy to spend much time looking inward.

"I've got a lot of things to do when I get up in the morning," he says, with just a hint of sarcasm.

Luckily for the people attending a Native American conference in Prescott this midsummer afternoon, Bruce Babbitt has no last-minute travel changes, no eagles to release.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is an agency within the Department of the Interior, and the conferees in Prescott are planning next year's budget. They need Babbitt's political clout to derail drastic cuts proposed by the Republican majority.

But he's an hour late. And the conferees wonder whether he'll show up at all.

Finally he arrives, dashes into a side room, gets briefed by aides.
A well-muscled man named J.O., who is one of Babbitt's driver-bodyguards, clears the men's rest room in case Babbitt needs to use it before speaking. J.O. seems a bit harried. He mutters something about how Babbitt's Washington scheduling office doesn't understand the vast distances in the West. It's almost four o'clock. Babbitt has yet to speak to the group. That will take at least an hour. Maybe two hours. How in the world will Jose, the relief driver, be able to deliver Babbitt to the Phoenix airport, at least a two-hour drive from Prescott, in time to catch a 6:30 flight to Oregon?

Jose and J.O. decide to book Babbitt on a later airplane.
Babbitt, dressed in an elegant gray suit, enters the conference room. It's immediately apparent to anyone who has followed Babbitt's career that he's aging remarkably well. Except for a few liver spots on his hands, he looks much younger than his 58 years. Tall, unstooped, slender, he still has a full head of hair the color of a desert sand dune. He's tanned and fit from all the hikes and forest-fire fighting adventures that Republicans say amount to little more than campaign stunts for Clinton.

This is a tough audience. Several months ago, after allegations surfaced that the BIA had lost tens of millions in Indian trust-fund monies, a trustee appointed by Interior ordered an audit. The audit has yet to be concluded, but few Indians would dispute that the BIA is a top-heavy, inefficient bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, Babbitt urges Indians not to dismantle the agency. "If you all want me to abolish the BIA, I'll do it," he says. "I won't do it willingly. There is a fiduciary responsibility that cannot be ignored. If anyone proposes to get rid of the BIA, you ask them where that fiduciary responsibility will be going."

Although archives of Babbitt's speeches reveal he's fought not to reduce the BIA's budget, several Indians don't think he's fought hard enough. "You are dishonest," says one delegate. "The Bureau of Land Management and the national parks and other departments in the Interior carry a higher budgetary priority than the BIA."

"You can change the trend," Babbitt says when the man is finished, by helping to plan "how this budget goes to the Hill."

"We need you to dance that Indian dance for us," says another delegate. "We need you to direct the BIA to get more involved with us. Everything is a priority in Indian Country. It sort of bothers me, it seems to me I sound like I'm begging for things again. I need you and the BIA to stand with us. I need you to play a stronger role, an advocacy role. We have to say these things openly."

In the end, Babbitt wins over the crowd, impressing it with his detailed, current knowledge of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, water law and fishing rights.

When Babbitt strolls out of the room at 5:30 p.m., the group gives him a standing ovation.

Jose waits in the rental car.
Babbitt crunches his tall frame into the back seat, carefully folds his jacket, rearranges his books, briefcase and documents.

"I don't want to steer 100 miles off course, but I haven't eaten since breakfast," Babbitt tells Jose, who subsequently pulls up to a McDonald's in Prescott Valley. Babbitt jumps out, returns with a chocolate milk shake. He slurps through a straw, looking out the car window.

He missed the scent of the desert after a summer rainstorm so much, he says, that he once clipped a sprig off a creosote bush, carried it back to Washington and hung it in the shower, hoping to re-create the smell. He couldn't.

Bruce Babbitt has never had much to do with his family's cattle business. His father was a lawyer. Babbitt did not like to ride horses or rope steers. He rarely visited the family ranch.

But when it is politically expedient, he exploits the Babbitt clan's ownership of a ranch, a very large ranch, in northern Arizona. "I grew up in a little tiny town in northern Arizona in a family that has been in the ranching business since the mid-1880s, and which has kind of identified with that place and the experience of living as Westerners in that landscape for three, four, five generations, and I grew up in that cultural context," Babbitt said during an interview in 1994, when he was trying to reform outdated grazing policies on federal land.

The Babbitt clan was, indeed, what passed for aristocracy in Flagstaff, but the family made most of its fortune with its general stores and trading posts. Even today, many Babbitts are merchants, selling Fords, skis, hardware and practically everything else in stores that bear the Babbitt name and are scattered throughout northern Arizona.

When Babbitt was 5 years old, his father, Paul, then an attorney practicing in Los Angeles, returned to Flagstaff to become the family's corporate attorney.

Paul Babbitt was a soft-spoken, intellectual fellow who loved the out-of-doors, often taking his six children on Saturday outings to the country. You can live here your whole lives, Paul would say, and never know this place. He died in 1988.

People who knew Babbitt's late mother, Frances, recall she had elegant manners, was "powerful" and "dignified." Frances, who died in 1995, followed each detail of her son's political career, even to the point of clipping every newspaper article she could find that mentioned her son's name. When Bruce Babbitt, then the attorney general of Arizona, unexpectedly became governor after the sitting governor suffered a fatal heart attack, Frances expressed disappointment that her son's ambitious plan to run for Barry Goldwater's Senate seat had to be put on hold. When Babbitt ran for governor in the next election, Frances was sorry her son's victory came with a narrow margin.

In the 1950s, Flagstaff had fewer than 10,000 people. The Babbitts were the town aristocrats, and Bruce Babbitt developed a sense of self-control and reserve early. A nun who taught Babbitt in the second grade at St. Anthony's Catholic School remembered her pupil as being "rather serious for a small boy."

As Babbitt grew into a teenager, he became what can only be called a nerd.
Uncoordinated and awkward, he had pimples, wore big glasses, excelled in his classes. He dressed in loafers, Levi's rolled up at the cuffs, neatly pressed short-sleeved shirts.

"Cool was the thing to be," says childhood friend Richard Anderson. "Everyone else was trying to be cool. You know. Levi's worn real low, ducktail haircuts, taps on shoes, weightlifting, fighting, being tough, drinking, lowrider cars. . . . Bruce was just not cool."

Oddly enough, Babbitt successfully ran for student-body president even though he never really fit in to the high school scene.

"I think he had a level of condescension that was not perceived as being condescending," Anderson says. "The guy was 50 [IQ] points more intelligent than anyone else in the class. And he had generations of social skills and dignity and general class that nobody else had. So he had to find a way to relate to people who were less ambitious, less intelligent, less well-bred, had less of the things that made success. . . . He had to put some of the things he was aside in order to engender the kind of respect necessary to get people to vote for him."

Babbitt graduated and went off to Notre Dame, where he majored in geology and was once again elected student-body president. He won a postgraduate scholarship to study geophysics in England. And then he was accepted to Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 1965.

None of this surprised Anderson.
Twelve years ago, when Babbitt was governor of Arizona, Anderson asked his friend to appoint him as a Yavapai County Superior Court judge. Babbitt refused until Anderson got the backing of the state bar association. "Bruce," says Anderson, "always liked to have everything preapproved."

After law school, Babbitt worked for two years for Volunteers in Service to America, a group organized by the Kennedy administration to work in America's poor communities. He served first in Washington, D.C., then in Texas.

He met his future wife, Hattie Coons, a Texan, on an airplane. They married in 1968, when she was still a college student, blond, beautiful, leggy, smart. Hattie Babbitt, who did not respond to a request for an interview, is a lawyer herself and now serves as the American ambassador to the Organization of American States--an appointment Babbitt is said to have pushed for before he would accept the Interior post.

Shortly after Bruce Babbitt married, he launched his ambitious plan for a political career. Although he hadn't spent much time in Arizona, he managed to be elected attorney general in 1974, largely because he enlisted the support of Burton Barr, a powerful Republican who was his cousin's best friend.

Barr's support of Babbitt, which virtually guaranteed his election, enraged Dennis DeConcini, a Democrat who had also aspired to be attorney general. (The rivalry between DeConcini and Babbitt has lasted for decades. When Clinton considered Babbitt for a Supreme Court nomination, for instance, then-senator Dennis DeConcini was said to have opposed it.)

As attorney general, Babbitt fought entrenched corruption and organized crime. He asked for a state grand jury to be appointed, then went after powerful land-fraud figures. He investigated a dog-racing monopoly and successfully pushed for a state racketeering statute. John Harvey Adamson, who was recently released from prison after serving more than 20 years for his role in the murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles, testified that Babbitt was also targeted for murder because of his anti-organized-crime crusade.

In 1978, after the sudden death of Arizona's acting governor, Wes Bolin (the elected governor, Raul Castro, had left his post to become an ambassador to Argentina), Babbitt was installed as governor of Arizona. For a day, he was upset, because he had never planned on being governor--only U.S. senator.

Then he warmed to the idea. He faced a hostile Legislature, but he was politically agile and began to experiment with a political style that has become his hallmark--consensus building.

Burton Barr, then the House majority leader, was his archrival--sort of. Barr recalls that the governor would often ride his bike over to Barr's house early in the morning, have a cup of coffee, read the paper and discuss "the politics of the moment."

Babbitt's first consensus-based victory was the 1980 groundwater management code, which is considered visionary even today. Farmers, industries, cities and environmentalists all agreed to the code, which is designed to prevent overpumping of Arizona's precious groundwater reserves.

"We fought it out night after night after night," recalls Barr. "We finally came to an agreement. Babbitt had a political sense. He appreciated what others also believed and tried to prevent the thing [the consensus group] from breaking up with real fights. He sensed how far he could go before everyone started to run out on him."

During the two terms Babbitt served as governor, he used his consensus-building skills to ensure the passage of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, which provides health care for the indigent, and create the Department of Environmental Quality and visionary laws to protect the state's underground drinking-water reserves from industrial pollution.

"Working with a hostile Legislature in Arizona was great training," says Babbitt, who waxes nostalgic talking about his Arizona years, when he and his political opponent Burton Barr "knew how to feed the lions in the press."

"After sunset," Babbitt remembers, "when the issues were at stake, we always managed to find common ground."

"I thought in the major leagues the game would be a little more dignified," says Babbitt. "But in fact Congress is a much worse place than the Arizona Legislature of Burton Barr and Stan Turley [another political opponent]. There is no seriousness of purpose, there is no attempt to find common ground, it is all for show. No one is interested in facts or constructive solutions. It's all rhetoric for political consumption."

Babbitt's gubernatorial years were not without controversy. He drew criticism in 1983 for calling out the National Guard during a copper-miner strike in Morenci. When the Phelps Dodge Corporation hired replacement workers, Babbitt sent the guard to quell unrest. Strikers renamed Babbitt "Scabbitt" and were angry that a Democratic governor would send the guard to protect the mine's private property.

And Babbitt drew even more criticism when, in 1986, he spent large amounts of time out of state trying to capture the Democratic nomination for president.

He and his family took a campaigning bike ride through Iowa, but in the end, Babbitt didn't win a single primary, dropping out after the Iowa caucuses. Nevertheless, he counted his loss as a win. He emerged as a national figure, a moderate liberal with an eclectic program: eliminating the budget deficit with a 5 percent national sales tax on everything but medicine and food, with exemptions for poor people; a "needs test" to make sure those getting government benefits deserved them; taxes on Social Security benefits that went to rich people; an environmentally sensitive "land ethic" for public and private property; "workplace democracy" that gave workers more power with their employers; and free trade.

Actually, after his failed presidential bid, Babbitt seemed happier than ever. He signed up with the Steptoe and Johnson law firm in Phoenix, which has good connections to Washington politics. He had time to be with his sons and was making more money practicing water law than he'd ever made in his life. "Look at my calendar," he burst out to a business associate during his early tenure at Steptoe and Johnson. "I only have two appointments today!"

But Babbitt's quest for political power was not over. He still had plans and worked hard to keep himself in the public eye. He became president of the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental activist group. He monitored elections in Nicaragua. He wrote articles for the Christian Science Monitor and the New Republic. He studied trade issues. He helped his friend Bill Clinton, whom he'd met when the two were governors, campaign for president.

And after Clinton won, Babbitt was not terribly surprised at being called to Little Rock, Arkansas, to be briefed for a Cabinet position.

Bruce Babbitt will be the first to admit that when he went to Little Rock, in December 1992, just weeks before Clinton's inauguration, he didn't want to be Secretary of the Interior.

He wanted to be a U.S. trade representative.
"I flew to Little Rock with a trade speech," he says. "And before 24 hours was over, I gave my speech to Mickey Kantor. I said, 'Yeah, sure, I'd be happy to be Secretary of the Interior.'"

Actually, the appointment process was more complicated than that. Clinton was serious enough about naming Babbitt to the trade post to send a staffer to brief him on the position. But when environmentalists who'd helped elect Clinton learned that the Department of the Interior would be headed by Bill Richardson, a New Mexican, they protested, saying Richardson had no real empathy for environmental causes. Babbitt, on the other hand, was a long-standing environmentalist.

Clinton was forced into last-minute juggling. He named Federico Pena to be Secretary of Transportation, thus filling the Hispanic post in his multicultural cabinet. He moved Babbitt to the Interior Department, which pleased environmentalists. And he named Kantor trade rep.

Babbitt also pushed to have his wife Hattie, who is fluent in Spanish, appointed ambassador to the OAS.

"I was very involved in Hattie's appointment," says Fred DuVal, who is quick to defend Hattie as being "appointable in her own right." Hattie, he says, "had political tickets, linguistic tickets, a very close relationship with the First Lady and an Interior secretary who was saying it means a lot to me that this will happen."

As soon as he became Secretary of the Interior, Babbitt identified three public-lands issues that needed immediate attention: the massive cutting of timber on federal lands, the reform of ancient federal grazing regulations and the redrafting of the 1872 mining law. He waxed eloquent about Americans entering a "third great environmental movement" in which they would use laws already in place, like the Endangered Species Act, "not just to stop decline, but to reverse it."

Environmentalists were encouraged, not only because Babbitt's heart seemed in the right place, but because he understood the complexities of environmental science.

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.

"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.

And, besides, the allegations seemed utterly absurd on their face. Bruce Babbitt is a nerd who doesn't gamble.

The story, nevertheless, was thought to have killed Babbitt's chances for the Supreme Court nomination. Ruth Bader Ginsberg was chosen instead.

When Clinton considered Babbitt the second time, the Interior secretary was called to the White House for a midnight chat with the president. "Bruce has only talked to me about this in the most elliptical way," says Eckstein, who, among many media clients, represents New Times. "The president called Bruce up at midnight and invited him over to the White House. The president is sitting around in Levi's. It's a very rambling three-hour discussion. I think Bruce leaves the meeting thinking it might happen, but he leaves confused. . . . He called me up and asked me to draft a statement for him that would be used in his announcement. . . . I recall his words very clearly. He said it hadn't been promised, but he had reason to believe that something might happen as early as five hours from then."

Babbitt will only say he left the White House feeling "confused."
"I was ambivalent about the whole thing in the first place," he says. "I told the president, 'Look, you want me, fine. You ask me to accept the nomination, I will . . . But I gotta tell you, I'm divided. One day I think yes. The next day I think no.'"

Clinton chose federal appellate judge Stephen Breyer instead.
When the appointment was being considered, Babbitt was a focus of hatred for many Western politicos, and his nomination would have resulted in a Senate fur fight that Clinton did not relish. What's more, powerful environmentalists, including population expert Paul Ehrlich, lobbied hard to keep Babbitt at Interior. "I was very distressed when I found out Babbitt might be nominated to the Court," says Ehrlich. "I am a tremendous respecter of his mind."

There are plenty of other hardworking, honest people who could be Supreme Court justices, he says, and Babbitt's brains were necessary at Interior.

Babbitt says he was not shamed by being considered for the Court and not getting the appointment--twice.

"What he [Clinton] did with the Supreme Court appointments is actually good government," Babbitt says. "He surfaced his thought process in public. I don't think that's at all demeaning."

"Of course," he adds, "the ideal compromise would be in the year 2000, when this administration is turning out the lights, for there to be a vacancy in the Supreme Court."

As the presidential race heats up, Bill Clinton seems to be relying more and more on Bruce Babbitt's advice. Recently, in what appeared to be an effort to steal thunder from the Republican convention, Clinton rescued Yellowstone National Park from the pollution threat of a soon-to-be-reopened gold mine. The president announced that the federal government and Crown Butte Mines had entered into a land-swap agreement that would ensure the protection of Yellowstone, which is only two miles away from the proposed mine. The details of the agreement hadn't been hammered out, but the mining company agreed to surrender its rights to reopen the mine in exchange for as-yet-unidentified federal land elsewhere in the United States. Babbitt promised to forbid mining at the site for 20 years.

Congressional Republicans, however, are attacking the newly visible Babbitt. They, too, are talking about land swaps.

In July, the House's Resources Committee held a hearing on the results of an Interior audit released that same month. The audit questioned three Nevada land swaps conducted from 1992 to 1995 by an Interior agency, the Bureau of Land Management. The audit says that the government "may have lost $4.4 million" in the three exchanges because the BLM did not consistently follow regulations. In the swaps, the government traded land ripe for development for environmentally sensitive land. A Las Vegas newspaper reported that two of the swaps involved Arizona companies and a third involved the American Land Conservancy, a San Francisco company upon whose board Babbitt once served as a nonvoting member.

During the hearing, the committee could find no evidence that Babbitt was involved in the swaps. The BLM is reassessing its land-swap policies, a spokesman says, and has yet to write a final response to the audit.

Babbitt doesn't seem at all upset by the controversy, saying it happens with practically every high-profile land swap.

He was also unruffled earlier this month when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Alaska Republican Frank Murkowski, investigated a questionable lease of Lake Havasu shoreline from the BLM to Harrison Burnett, who is a partner with Babbitt in an unrelated real estate venture. The lease in question appeared to violate a number of federal rules and was eventually canceled by the BLM.

The committee could find no evidence that Babbitt, who had disclosed his relationship with Burnett before he became secretary, had been involved in the lease.

So far, the controversies don't seem to have worn down Babbitt. But he won't say whether or how long he's going to stay at Interior. All he will say is that he likes his job.

As usual, Bruce Babbitt is late. Only this time, it is not a late flight or a call from the president that has delayed him.

This time, he's fighting a forest fire near Flagstaff with the Arrowhead Hot Shots.

Convinced he won't show up for his press conference, several television reporters have already given up, packed their cameras and driven back to Phoenix. Others wait it out, fighting off the chill of the mountain air.

Finally, a U.S. Forest Service truck pulls up. Babbitt steps out. He's stiff from carrying a heavy water pack on his back; his eyes are bloodshot and rimmed with ointment. Except for a white area around his eyes that has been protected by goggles, his face is covered with soot. The face is fatigued, but happy. He's been outside all day.

How do you account for this tough fire season, the reporters ask.
The fire season is bad because there is a severe drought, Babbitt answers without a visible hint of condescension. And then he uses the press conference to promote one of his favorite ideas: the use of controlled burning to prevent forest fires.

He jokes, saying it's less stressful on the fire line than in Washington. Then he walks stiffly back to the truck, which will take him to the fire camp, where he will eat spaghetti and garlic bread and collapse in a tent, pitched in the camp of the Arrowhead Hot Shots.

The next day, his birthday, he will not be with his family or the president. He will not fight about grazing or take flak for his endangered species proposals or answer questions about the Supreme Court.

Instead, he will get up at five o'clock in the morning, eat breakfast and board the bus. Once he gets near the fire line, he will put a heavy water pack on his back and spend the first day of his 59th year on Earth alone, extinguishing smoldering trees left in the wake of a wildfire.