CASPER, Wyo. - After Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt testified before a U.S. Senate field hearing here on July 15, Sen. Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo., invited him to attend a lunchtime barbecue and rally lambasting Interior's grazing policy. Wallop added jokingly, "We've reserved a spit for you."
Perhaps to Wallop's surprise, the Clinton
administration's top public-lands manager took him up on the
invitation, affably chatting with ranchers and state politicians
while, in the background, speaker after speaker railed against his
policies and his personality.
said that being a sacrificial lamb comes with the job of running a
department caught between conflicting mandates of "resource
exploitation ... and resource conservation."
"Almost no Interior secretary has ever finished
a four-year term," Babbitt said. "... It turns out the second one
collapsed of a nervous breakdown after 13 days. Richard Ballinger
(William Taft's Interior secretary) was driven out of office in a
controversy which caused the collapse of the Republican Party and
led to the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912. It's absolutely
endless and the reason is this crossfire stuff."
Although Babbitt didn't mention it, one of the
best examples of the rigors of his office is provided by Stan
Hathaway, a former Republican governor of Wyoming, who served as
Interior secretary under President Ford for just 32 days before
resigning due to depression (HCN,
Babbitt hasn't escaped the harsh
treatment his predecessors experienced. Pressing an agenda that
cuts across the West's environment and economy, he's been a
favorite rhetorical target for ranchers, loggers and even Western
Democratic governors. Some attacks come as much from allies in the
environmental movement as from sworn enemies among commodity
Environmental groups - which Babbitt
says practically canonized him a year ago - now say his tendency to
compromise has thwarted significant progress on an agenda in which
they'd placed high hopes after 12 years of Republican control of
the White House. The latest issue of the Sierra Club's magazine,
for instance, calls Babbitt "a political pawn" and says his
turnabouts have left environmentalists feeling "betrayed."
Babbitt takes much of this in stride. "How do
you raise any money from a rancher or an environmentalist by
saying, "This is a systemic issue, it's full of complexity, there
are lots of differing interests?" "''''he
But the secretary adds that the
unwillingness of interest groups on both sides to seek a middle
ground will make it much harder to deal with resource use and
protection. He says the interest groups still operate by a
winner-take-all standard that no longer fits an era where the
biggest problems revolve around the health of large, multifaceted
ecosystems, vast expanses within which humans and their environment
interact in complicated ways.
The days of
legislating another national park and then sleeping soundly, secure
in the notion that the natural world is safe, are over, according
to Babbitt. "You have to look at the big
"That means you complexify, you bring in
lots of parties and it means you're looking for an equilibrium that
is somehow going to fall short of the old standard of judgment,
which was you're a hero if you put 40 acres of land into a national
park. You've got a pristine, single use victory ... There just
aren't many of those around anymore."
Babbitt drag the West into this new era of cooperation? As a
two-term governor of Arizona, he was famous as a negotiator:
bringing together opposing sides, locking the doors and extracting
a solution by applying an unflinching
And as secretary of the Interior,
Babbitt has applied his talent for spinning compromise on several
high-profile issues, including ancient forests in the Pacific
Northwest and the Florida Everglades, which has been badly damaged
by polluted runoff from sugar production.
those issues also show the difficulties of this
In the Everglades, after the outline of
a massive, $700 million recovery plan had been hammered out, all
but one of the sugar companies withdrew. It took the intervention
of Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, who mandated industry's cooperation,
to save the plan.
Now the plan splits many of the
differences between the industry and environmentalists without
making either side happy.
"This is a huge,
regional ecosystem restoration plan and our reward was that I go to
Miami to give a speech and there are two groups of people picketing
me, one on each side of the hotel," Babbitt said. "The sugar
growers have organized a massive demonstration and the Everglades
Coalition is on the other side carrying posters, as well."
The biggest problem with Babbitt, say his
environmental critics, is that in Washington, D.C., compromise is
viewed as weakness, and weakness is political
By rewriting and substantially weakening
the grazing reform proposal in the hopes of winning Western
support, they say, Babbitt has only emboldened his enemies and made
it harder to press other items of his agenda.
creates a kind of feeding frenzy," according to Larry Mehlhaff,
regional director of the Sierra Club. "If you show weakness at that
level, people will try and push it as far as humanly possible. The
only way you overcome that is by taking a stand and sticking by
There's certainly evidence to support that
view. The opponents of reform of the 1872 Mining Law appear to be
modeling their attack on the successes of the battle over grazing.
Republicans in the Senate have threatened a filibuster if final
legislation is too tough on industry, and Western governors have
signed a letter complaining that reform could hobble local
But in Casper, Wyo., Babbitt appeared
unwavering after another skirmish with ranchers who might rather
see him run out on a rail. He expressed no worry about the prospect
of difficulties ahead or about losing environmentalists as
cheerleaders and allies.
"It's in the nature of
things that interest groups of any kind won't be in 100 percent
agreement with people who have responsibility for administering and
executing the laws," Babbitt says. "My job isn't to placate the
opponents. My job is to listen and to learn and to put together
something that is reasonable in the context of these large
"My real audience," says
Babbitt, "is the 80 percent who are not on either side. That's the
bottom line, and that's who I'm really speaking to."
Michael Riley, until
recently a staff writer with the Casper Star-Tribune, will attend
graduate school this