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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.

During the past seven years, dams were demolished for the sake of salmon, wolves were returned to Yellowstone, unchecked grazing practices have been reigned in, and perhaps most significantly, a conservation ethic has taken root within federal land management agencies that a decade ago were essentially in the development business.

Not too bad a record for a public official who neither environmentalists nor land developers care for too much. But then, Bruce Babbitt will be the first to tell you it’s tough to make friends when you’re Secretary of the Interior. As the nation’s top land manager, Babbitt oversees the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Reclamation, and Bureau of Indian Affairs. It’s a powerful but often thankless job-even for a professed conservationist like Babbitt. Some “greens” say he compromises too much and should fight harder for broader, more restrictive land-use policies. Meanwhile, miners, cattlemen, loggers, and off-roaders say he’s giving away land to the tree huggers and flower sniffers.

A tough, unenviable job? For the purpose of comparison, consider that President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of Interior lasted only 32 days before resigning, and the infamous James “Slash-and-Burn” Watt lasted three years in the Reagan administration. Babbitt has stayed in office for seven years, and plans to stick around through the end of President Clinton’s term. Because of his unusually long tenure and his dogged pursuit of the middle ground on polarized land-use issues, Babbitt has made a significant difference in how our backcountry is run. Thanks to him, as well as an army of determined environmentalists, the debate these days is no longer about whether our public lands should be preserved, but how much should be saved.

The key to Babbitt’s success is that he gets out there and gets dirty. Tall and fit and sporting the healthy glow of someone who spends time in the great outdoors, the former Arizona governor volunteers every summer as a “hot shot” fighting forest fires. He even backpacks, and his favorite trek is to hike down the Grand Canyon’s north rim on the rigorous Nankoweap Trail, hitch a ride on a raft down the Colorado River, and take the Tanner or some other trail up the south rim. But most important, he shuns Capitol Hill schmoozing and frequently visits hostile territory in the rural West, graciously accepting insults while seeking community buy-in on his preservation proposals.

It was during one of his westward forays (a hike around a BLM archaeological site in southwestern Colorado that he’s proposed for federal protection) that I caught up with Babbitt. We spent a hot day this past August talking about a broad range of issues that affect the average trail user. Here are the highlights, from one wilderness lover to another.

What are your thoughts on the Fee Demonstration Program?

The fee program is a great innovation and a tremendous success. So far, we’ve collected $50 million net. People don’t seem to mind paying fees at parks and recreation sites if they understand that the money is going to improvements and research.

The original bill said 80 percent of the fee collected would go to the park, but we are now moving toward a system in which 100 percent will go to the particular park. People will know that their money is helping fund a better experience-like at the Grand Canyon, a light rail, mass transit system is going to help get cars out of the park. The facilities at Yellowstone are being upgraded. We have an important program under way at Yosemite to begin restoring the Merced River Valley and move some of the parking areas and facilities down to the lower end of the valley and up to Badger Pass. It’s paying for a lot of things, like adequate sanitary facilities, wastewater treatment plants, and road improvement. We had an enormous maintenance backlog.

Some backpackers fear the fees will be used solely for front-country development, instead of helping preserve wilderness. Is there a structure that dictates what percentage goes to backwoods preservation?

We’ve left it up to each park to decide how they want to use the money. However, a fair amount is being allocated to resource protection programs, including the use of prescribed fire and endangered species recovery.

In most parks, there isn’t a lot of pressure on the backcountry. There is in some, like Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and some of the smaller parks. That has to be administered and subject to permitting. It’s necessary because who wants to take a four-day, cross-country trip in the Grand Canyon only to camp next to other people all the time and hear airplanes at dawn?

As for development, the philosophy of the Park Service now is that all new development should be outside the park in gateway communities. A century ago, the attitude was to take people into the park and provide everything there. In some cases, we’ll reduce facilities like lodgings and accommodations-not eliminate them but scale them back to the appropriate carrying capacity for the park. It’s a particular problem at Yosemite that we’re working on; Grand Canyon will also have some diminution of facilities.

The problem isn’t too many people, it’s too many cars. If we can get that one solved, then the issue is how do you manage the people side of the equation. And the parks do belong to the American people, so we want a welcome sign out at all times. We need to offer graded sets of experiences, something for families with young children, for handicapped people, for people who want to spend only 1 hour on their way to Seattle, as well as for wilderness-minded backpackers.

Where’s the next national park going to be?

I don’t want to tip my hand completely. A certain amount of mystery is helpful. What I’ve said to the public in the West is that I’m not out to do anything by surprise. I’ve been very open about my ideas. I’ve told the locals that before I propose anything, they’ll know about it first. I’ve done that with Steens Mountain and Desoto Mountain, Oregon; the Shivwits Plateau, Cienega Creek, and Perry Mesa, Arizona; the Missouri Breaks, Montana; Carrizo Plain and Otay Mountain, California; and Black Rock Desert, Nevada. (Editor’s note: These are all places Babbitt has repeatedly singled out as deserving protection, although he hasn’t said what type of designation-park, monument, or some other-he favors.)

What will it take to get more wilderness designated?

Like Woody Hayes used to say, three yards and a cloud of dust. You’ve got to just keep grinding it out. The key is local support. In Congress, we just finished up designating the Otay Mountain Wilderness in southern California. It’s a very important BLM wilderness, and we got it the hard way. I’ve hiked across that mountain half a dozen times in the last six to seven years, taking the public, press, California congressional members, and supervisors of San Diego County, explaining to them the importance of the mountain in protecting biodiversity and open space. And once or twice I had to remind [the congressional delegation] that if we couldn’t get it done through consensus legislation, I just might go to the president and ask him to make it a national monument.

The day where we have these big comprehensive, statewide wilderness bills approved in Congress is gone. Maybe it will return, but it’s not here right now. I’m trying to make that point with the national environmental organizations. There’s a lot of localism in wilderness designation these days, and until you’ve worked out the local issues one landscape at a time, you’re not going to get any motion.

There used to be this idea that if you designate wilderness areas one at a time, you’re not going to get as good a result. But I’d argue that if you do them one at a time, you’ll get a better result because people buy in. We’re seeing that in Utah. It’s been terribly contentious, but the governor and I have worked on a wilderness bill for western Utah that we’ve come to agreement on, and it involves a lot more land than the initial proposal the environmental groups made. Since we couldn’t get agreement on a statewide bill, we just took west Utah and worked it. (The plan hammered out by Babbitt and Utah Governor Mike Leavitt would designate 1 million acres in Utah’s basin and range areas as wilderness. The Utah Wilderness Coalition opposes the measure, arguing that it doesn’t set aside enough of the 2.6 million acres in the region that had been identified as potential wilderness.)

The 9.1-million-acre SUWA (Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance) proposal may happen, but not while I’m in office. If you quit obsessing about a number [of proposed designated acres] on a statewide basis and zero in on particular regions and areas, the numbers may take care of themselves in a way that people really didn’t think possible.

Do you think Congress will reduce the Park Service budget because of the new fees coming in?

It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s something we need to watch. Park advocates have identified it as an issue. The funding trend has been upward, as it must be to keep up with the rise in visitation.

Do you think we’re managing wilderness properly?

Wilderness administration is a complex issue, but the thing that requires the most discussion is whether it’s appropriate to manage forests in wilderness areas-specifically as it applies to fire ecology. The issue is very real in the inland West, and there will be vigorous debate over whether mechanical thinning of forests is a necessary prerequisite to prescribed fires. (As per the Wilderness Act, no mechanical or motorized equipment is allowed in federally designated wild areas. Also, fire is key to a healthy wilderness.) We’ve already authorized some forest restoration on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, which will require mechanical thinning in order to burn the forest safely. It’s a catch-22 because since we’ve been suppressing fires for more than a century, now it’s become inevitable that any fire will decimate the place if it’s not thinned first.

I don’t have the ultimate wisdom on this, but I can tell you that the restoration of fire to western forests is imperative. We’ve changed the fire policies of the Forest Service, Park Service, and BLM 180 degrees. We’ve gotten more flexibility and more money, but we have a long way to go. Take this landscape here; it’s not natural. All this pi?on-juniper wasn’t here when fires regularly moved across the land. You can’t fully replicate the past, but it’s a good baseline to work from, whether it’s salmon restoration or bringing wolves back to Yellowstone. Wolves and fire do essentially the same thing for the ecosystem and play a vital role. They weed out the unhealthy and decadent parts of the ecosystem. They guarantee the health of the system.

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