The secretary speaks

  • Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt


Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories.

Since taking office in 1993, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has been an ardent supporter of habitat conservation plans. In a recent telephone interview, he elaborated on his position.

Bruce Babbitt: "I got involved (in urban habitat conservation plans) early on in Southern California. The issue was getting quite contentious out there, because L.A. and San Diego, like two magnets pointed at each other, were just obliterating all the open space in the coastal plain of Southern California. And this bird, the California gnatcatcher, had just been listed and they were at an absolute impasse.

"I felt it was time to get down in the dirt, so I just headed out to Southern California and spent days and weeks out on the ground with city and county officials, builders, biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Service and state people, and just said, "look, we've got an opportunity here, but we have to take the initiative. There's no way a judge is going to do anything except say no; we've got to get to yes." Out of that came the habitat conservation plans for San Diego County and Orange County.

"I think what really gave them crucial momentum was that the mayor of San Diego and the county leaders started to see that there could be a nice match between open space and endangered species protection. They looked up and said, "wow, the Endangered Species Act can be the extra piece that will help us put together open-space plans, which are good for many other purposes." That was the key insight. Once we got that going, we worked out these plans, and now there are literally hundreds of thousands of acres of land being protected under these habitat conservation plans.

"I'm not sure that there's any other approach. I'm really not, other than just having a freeze on all growth, which just isn't going to happen. Strict enforcement will run headlong into two things: Absolute enforcement, with no take (allowed), will provoke a constitutional challenge unless there is money to buy every single piece of land, which will never happen. And if you try to freeze growth, the law will be repealed. That's the bottom line.

"I think (the widening impacts of the Endangered Species Act) are for the better. There are site-by-site conflicts, but you have to look at the larger picture ... People see the presence of an endangered species as a signal that something is wrong. They see an opportunity to use the Endangered Species Act and mesh it with other planning devices ... to do something about urban sprawl.

"Denver is a nice example. The (Preble's meadow) jumping mouse is an inhabitant of wetlands. It lives in these stream courses that come down off the Rocky Mountain Front. (The mouse listing) is going to provide a way of doing what I think everybody agrees ought to be done, which is to protect those riparian areas. They're not terribly widespread, so they're pretty precious, these little streams. I think it's an opportunity to put together an open-space plan across that part of the Rocky Mountain Front.

"These are important issues, and there are a lot of people with strong opinions on all sides. I think a certain amount of (conflict) is inevitable; what we want to avoid is the kind of thing that happened in the Pacific Northwest, where you just get into a 10-year war in which everything comes to a halt. You've got to find creative ways to sort these things out."

You can contact ...
* Ralph Naess, Seattle Public Utilities naturalist, 206/233-1566;
* Charlie Raines, Sierra Club Cascades Chapter, 206/523-1347;
* Mayor Paul Schell, 206/684-4000.