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Backpacker Magazine – February 2000

Bruce Babbitt: Not Your Average Bureaucrat

Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbit knows he can't please everyone. So rather than try, he spends his time righting environmental wrongs and preserving wildlands.

by: Annette McGivney

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What about management of public lands in general?

Over the last century, our public lands have been administered under the multiple-use concept. Ultimately, multiple use fails to answer the question, "What happens when the uses conflict?" You can't have a cattle ranch, a mine, a timber mill, and a campground all on the same 40 acres. So, we're going to have to move-and we are moving-toward a concept in which we think of public lands in terms of the dominant and preferable public use of that particular area. We've got to get away from this idea that every square acre is available for everything. We've got to look thoughtfully at the landscape and recognize, for example, that on this 160,000-acre tract you and I are on now, the dominant use should be protection of one of the greatest archaeological resources in the United States.

But who determines the dominant use? The cattleman? The hiker? The bureaucrat?

That's why I've come here today, to meet with the various stakeholders. We have some authority for determining the dominant use under the Antiquities Act, and we have some authority under the land management process, but it's a debate that we have to have. On this land, for instance, there's a CO2 (natural gas) facility that has done a great job, so I think it's compatible here. Properly managed grazing is compatible on these 160,000 acres. But there shouldn't be logging because it's too destructive and the economics don't justify it. We've withdrawn this land from mineral entry because there shouldn't be a heap leach mine here.

So now the question is, can this more thoughtful view of the landscape be incorporated into a management structure, whether it's a National Conservation Area created by Congress, a national monument created by the president, or something else? We have to have the energy and the courage to look at the landscape and acknowledge that there's too much pressure on the land for this old multiple-use approach. That's the big issue we're facing now.

There's nothing worse than hiking through a heavily grazed area. Is grazing reform possible?

Grazing is terribly contentious, but we've made some progress in two areas. One is forming resource advisory councils that have a role in establishing standards and guidelines. But the most visible progress has been riparian restoration: the combination of riparian standards-for instance, you don't trample riparian areas anymore, they must be fenced-and [use of] the ESA [Endangered Species Act] has resulted in visible progress all over the West. If you want examples, look at Trout Creek Mountain in Oregon and the San Pedro River and Cienega Creek, Arizona, which looks like Brazilian rain forest now. If you just give riparian areas a chance to recover, people can hardly believe the difference.

If you had carte blanche to manage public lands any way you chose, what would you do differently?

I would expand the debate about how we establish priorities for land management in ecosystems and try to strike a balance between biodiversity and sustainable resource use. You have to do it one ecosystem at a time, and you have to do it in a way that acknowledges that there are legitimate and important economic values on public lands. But we need to take the long view.

Now this is already happening in various ways. Take the Northwest Forest Plan that utilizes the ESA. It has changed logging practices across the Pacific Northwest. The way we've used the ESA in the Southwest has virtually brought an end to the logging of old-growth ponderosa pine. And that's acknowledgment that the ESA has a set of values that must be protected. On the Rocky Mountain front in Montana, we withdrew half a million acres of land between Glacier National Park and Bob Marshall Wilderness from mineral extraction. The public values of wildlife in this area were so high that it wasn't an appropriate place to allow mineral, oil, and gas entry.

What's your response to environmentalists who say you compromise too much?

I'm doing my job; I'm enjoying it and we're getting a lot done. The price of getting things done is that you always have people who are unhappy because they want things done differently, but that's life. You never get unanimous support.

But there are times when it's important to proceed when there's no consensus. The [Mexican gray] wolf restoration in the Southwest is an example. There hasn't been much compromise there; we just did it. In other cases, you need to recognize that there are people and heritage and local values that are important, and you need to find new ways of doing things that make sense.

So what's the most important item on the current agenda?

This ecosystem restoration concept. What we've accomplished so far is just the beginning of a new chapter in conservation history. What we're learning from conservation biology is that it's not enough to set aside the "Back 40." To protect the diversity and integrity of a place, you've got to look at the whole landscape. Take, for example, the Everglades ecosystem restoration. We've spent billions of dollars rehabilitating not just the Everglades but the entire southern Florida landscape because we learned that the seasonal pulses of water that are the heart of that ecosystem start gathering outside Orlando. It's not that the Park Service isn't taking good care of the Everglades, but by the time the water arrives in the park, it's full of phosphorous pollution. The restoration plan that's now before Congress is really unprecedented.

And in an odd way, the place we're looking at today is an interesting archaeological example of ecosystem restoration. If you look at a map of this area of Colorado, there are a whole bunch of little national monuments, and they're all little tiny squares. It reflects that old "Back 40" mentality of protecting only a couple of sites. But the richness and glory of these cultures is how they operated on the landscape and interacted with each other. The real story of the Escalante Ruin (where we're hiking) is the interaction they had with the surrounding community. The question we're now posing in southwest Colorado is, isn't it time we look at the whole system?

That's what we're doing with the Shivwits Plateau proposal; it's part of the Grand Canyon system. Just because nobody goes there doesn't mean it's not important. Some people argue that these places aren't being threatened so I should leave them alone. But if you wait until there's a problem, it's too late. The future is coming at us and change is inevitable.

What will you do when your term is up?

I'll tell you what I'm not going to do: I'm not going to run for public office, I'm not going to practice law, and I'm not going to be a lobbyist. The rest of the world is open and full of possibilities.

What advice would you give the next Secretary of the Interior?

Anybody in an office like this does their successor a favor by handing over the keys, and refraining from fatherly advice because it always comes across as patronizing.

Are there things you hoped to accomplish, but probably won't?

There are always unfinished tasks. I would have liked to have finished up the National Wilderness system. The wilderness system was authorized in 1964, but 35 years later we still have a huge backlog of unfinished business.

The way the wilderness process works is that Congress gives veto power to state delegations, and it's been very slow because of that. The most complete wilderness is in Arizona, and that's because when I was governor, Arizona Congressman Mo Udall called me and Senator Barry Goldwater together and said, "Let's do this across party lines for the benefit of Arizona." Thanks to Goldwater's basic goodwill and decency, the three of us were able to listen to all the stakeholders and write a bill. That kind of thing just hasn't happened very much in other parts of the West.

Also, I would have liked to have gotten further with river restoration. Ecological restoration will be one of the big issues of the next century. We've just begun restoration in the Everglades and California. The Mississippi/Missouri will be the mother of all restoration challenges. That system is in deep trouble; the delta is disappearing in Louisiana. There's a huge hypoxic zone out in the Gulf of Mexico from too many nutrients flowing into the water.


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