Babbitt's Secret Growth-Control Plan

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"Lame ducks have wings," Babbitt has told the press in recent months. With his tenure as Secretary of the Interior ending when President Clinton leaves office early next year, Babbitt is free to show his environmental colors, and in several speeches across the West has announced that he would like to use federal power to protect ecosystems regardless of whether local governments want them protected.

Last year, he pulled off a monster land exchange with the state of Utah and its conservative Republican governor, Mike Leavitt. The feds took 363,000 acres, including inholdings in national forests and the controversial Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. They gave Utah 145,000 acres of federal land to develop -- and $50 million to deposit in the state's schools trust.

In January, at Babbitt's urging, Clinton designated more than one million acres in the Arizona Strip as the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument and 71,000 acres along I-17 from Black Canyon City to Cordes Junction as the Agua Fria National Monument. Both new national monuments butt up against already protected national park or national forest land. Both designations also came over the objections of the governor, GOP congressmen and many state legislators.

Voters -- and politicians -- are all too aware that Arizona's wide open spaces are closing rapidly. "Open space" has become a catch phrase in all growth-management discussions, but it means different things to different groups. To environmentalists, open space means wildlife corridors and biological diversity, tracts of land large enough that critters can reproduce with other gene pools rather than fester in tiny islands of habitat that guarantee extinction.

To developers, open space means parks and golf courses and rock outcroppings that couldn't be developed anyway.

Babbitt's definition is closer to the first, Governor Hull's to the second.

As part of Growing Smarter Plus, Hull has crafted a ballot initiative asking the state's citizens to approve a 270,000-acre Arizona Conservation Reserve -- land to be taken out of the state land trust and preserved for posterity. One priority for lands deposited into the reserve is that they be landmarks -- she refers to them as "crown jewels. This is how 19th- and early 20th-century politicos established the National Park system, wrapping parks around what Babbitt has referred to in his speeches as "curiosities" such as geysers and canyons and sand dunes. Even Hull's choice of names harks back to another time: The national forests were originally called "reserves," and they were to be doled out and used up as needed.

"Isn't it time in this generation, with all these development schemes pressing in, to say, 'We've gone from curiosity to landscape?'" Babbitt told a Denver audience on February 17, the day after he met with Hull. "We can begin to think of an ecosystem and there's still time to protect that ecosystem.... Is it going to be a postage-stamp park, or wide-open public domain on which anything goes?..."

He asked the Denver crowd if such landscapes could be protected by legislation -- with state cooperation, that is -- or if they would have to be protected by presidential proclamation. He can just take it if he wants -- under existing federal statutes, such as those regarding federal antiquities and reclamation. It would require federal legislation, to be sure, and it would require compensation to the state for the taking.

But he needs to act quickly given the looming presidential election and the risk that Democrats will be ousted from the White House.

Woods and Babbitt came together in Chandler in January at a panel discussion set up by the Western Association of Resource Conservation and Development Councils and moderated by Prescott public-land-use lawyer Don Moon. Babbitt spoke last, and he brought up the possibility that the feds could help states protect open space through land exchanges.

Shortly afterward, Babbitt called Woods.

"He invited me on a little hike out at Perry Mesa and we started talking about that," Woods says.

They talked about the governor's plan, and Woods thought the governor's package looked better if Babbitt's acres were added in.

"Nobody knows Arizona and its resources better than Bruce Babbitt," Woods says. "He cares about the environment and he wants to make a deal. The state can cut a better deal than it will ever be able to do again. You've got an Arizonan as Secretary of the Interior who wants to do it. I'm not so sure he's necessarily going to drive that hard of a bargain."

Because the mere mention of Babbitt's name raises hackles in conservative Republican circles, it would serve him well to channel his proposal through a Republican like Woods.

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Michael Kiefer