In the rough-and-tumble world of American politics, you can be a hero one day, a bum the next. Few know this better than Bruce Babbitt.


Eight years ago, when the U.S. Senate confirmed Babbitt as secretary of the Department of Interior, conservationists could hardly believe their good fortune. Here was a Westerner who cared passionately about the public lands, a man who quoted Aldo Leopold and Wallace Stegner and actually understood the basic tenets of conservation biology.


Those first heady days of the Clinton administration confirmed those hopes. The president's first budget called for ranchers and mining companies to pay fair market value for their use of forage and minerals on public lands. With other green leaders positioned in key Interior slots, the entire stalled environmental agenda - new wilderness designations, long-overdue endangered species listings and protections, reform of the 1872 Mining Law, dismantling of dams - seemed poised to roll.


Then reality hit. Within a few months, Babbitt was in full retreat on grazing and mining fees, with Western politicians and extractive industries nipping at his heels and the White House nowhere to be found. The conservation community painfully discovered that a Democratic president, Democratic Congress and the greenest Interior secretary and vice president in memory wouldn't hand them any slam-dunk victories.


Things got even bleaker in 1994, when voters sent a conservative cadre of Contract-with-America Republicans to Congress. Conservationists found themselves back on the all-too-familiar defensive, warding off attacks on the Endangered Species Act and watching helplessly as Clinton signed a salvage logging law that exempted dozens of public-land timber sales from environmental review.


Deeply disappointed, some environmentalists questioned Babbitt's commitment to reform and his ability to get things done. But like a tired boxer in the middle rounds, he persevered and settled on a new strategy: If he couldn't accomplish anything through Congress, then he would seek reform through administrative actions.


That strategy began to pay off in the mid-1990s, when Babbitt finally enacted new grazing regulations; he also oversaw the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone and Idaho, busted a fish-killing dam in Maine, and helped stop the proposed New World gold mine outside Yellowstone. And in 1996, during Clinton's re-election campaign, he convinced the president to use an executive order to create the nearly 2 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.


If his tenure had stopped there, Babbitt might have secured a place in history as a decent Interior secretary. But he had the luxury of a second term, and he used it. Perhaps his most sagacious move was to entwine his legacy with that of another politician looking for redemption: Bill Clinton.


Babbitt tells it like this. One day, at an official Washington function, he walked up to Clinton and handed him an index card. On the left side was a listing of the land protected by Theodore Roosevelt, along with a total acreage figure. On the right side of the card were figures pertaining to Clinton's modest and seemingly indifferent land protection record.


Over the following months, Babbitt continued his quiet campaign. Clinton always seemed appreciative, if uninspired. Then, around the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Clinton became enthusiastic. It didn't hurt that virtually every public opinion poll showed that Americans cared deeply about environmental protection (or that other polls showed that Americans were sick to death of Clinton's sexual escapades).


The national monument flurry that followed was breathtaking to Western conservationists, who had struggled for years in the trenches. And behind it all, index cards in hand, stood Bruce Babbitt.


Will history judge Babbitt as one of the greatest Interior secretaries? It's too early to tell. It may take a couple of years to see if the regulatory changes and the executive orders hold up under the Bush administration. Time will also tell whether Babbitt's push to make the Endangered Species Act more landowner-friendly backfires. But it's hard to refute that the bulky public land agencies steered by Babbitt are now in a place quite different than they were when he started.

HCN publisher Ed Marston caught up with Secretary Babbitt on his last day of office. Their conversation begins on page 8.