Jim Baca's nine-month run as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management chief ended Feb. 3. After Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt made it clear in a private meeting that Baca's services at BLM were no longer desired, the usually outspoken Baca reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a piece of paper containing his resignation.
"I told him it was probably best if
I went on," Baca said later.
It was a quiet
climax to a bizarre week, in which Baca's job was at various times
threatened, declared safe and threatened again. It was a week in
which Babbitt waffled, environmentalists watched with horror and
wise-use groups cheered.
"One down and 99 to go,"
said Mike Fusco, field coordinator of the New Mexico Cattle Growers
Later, Fusco's boss, association
director Al Schneeberger, reprimanded Fusco and restricted his
media access. But everyone knew what Fusco meant. Baca, 48, a
former New Mexico land commissioner and the most vocal proponent of
public-lands reform in the Clinton administration, was gone,
leaving prospects for reform murkier than
In private meetings with top
environmentalists shortly after Baca quit, Babbitt offered repeated
assurances that he would not back away from his plans to offer a
new package of grazing-reform regulations in early March. Indeed,
some sources said that Babbitt and his aides were letting it be
known that Baca's outspokenness on reform issues was alienating
powerful Western politicians so much that it would be easier to
push reforms through if Baca were
Environmentalists, however, were skeptical
that grazing reforms stood much chance without prodding from Baca.
They worried that other long-held dreams, such as getting Utah and
New Mexico BLM wilderness bills passed, would sink
And for the first time, some were publicly
raising questions about Babbitt, whose appointment
environmentalists had fought for a year ago. Then they fought a
second fight, this time to keep him from being appointed to the
U.S. Supreme Court because they felt he was invaluable at
Now, environmentalists noted that even
before Baca was ousted, the latest People For the West! newsletter
contained a lengthy article praising Babbitt's decision to back off
plans for national grazing standards in favor of local controls
(HCN, 1/24/94). Beneath a picture of Babbitt, the
anti-environmentalist group wrote, "Changing his spots? Babbitt,
super greenie turned populist?"
was first appointed, I said in an interview that he had an
opportunity to be one of the great Interior secretaries," said Dan
Hellman, The Wilderness Society's vice president for conservation.
"Here it is one year later, and he has not lived up to our
Jay Hair, president of the
National Wildlife Federation, said bluntly, "It doesn't matter if
James Watt or Bruce Babbitt is secretary."
Exactly why Baca got the ax remains unclear (see
story below). Publicly, Babbitt has said nothing beyond a press
statement that the two men had different management styles. Baca
called the management-styles explanation "bogus."
"I have been offered up to Western senators and
governors and the extractive industries as appeasement," Baca said.
"I came here adept at politics, but I wasn't expecting politics as
usual. I thought this was a different kind of administration."
What's clear is that Baca's straight-talking
ways and occasional abrasiveness did not work in Washington, D.C.
He alienated some Republican senators last
September by writing an internal memo saying that the
administration would push through its range reform programs
administratively after the Senate had voted to block them. He
annoyed Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a member of the
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, because Baca didn't
make the customary courtesy visit that BLM nominees usually make
with committee members before being confirmed.
turning point came after Andrus wrote Babbitt a letter last August
blasting Baca. The Idaho governor complained that Baca gave a press
conference saying he was skeptical about the military expansion
plans for the state, without having spelled out his concerns to
Andrus first. Baca later said Andrus "lied," and that Baca had
talked to the governor the day before the press
"Frankly, my friend, you don't have
enough political allies in the West to treat us this shabbily,"
Andrus wrote Babbitt.
The end for Baca came in
Washington-esque fashion. In late January, word leaked out that
Babbitt had offered Baca a deputy assistant secretary's post.
Babbitt's aides said publicly on Jan. 27 that Baca could keep his
old job if he chose. But the next evening, when Babbitt and Baca
met privately, Baca said that when he told Babbitt he wanted to
stay as BLM director, his boss replied they'd talk again when he
returned from vacation in a few days.
On Jan. 31,
as environmentalists and People For the West! were grinding out
faxed messages urging the White House to keep or fire Baca, Babbitt
told reporters, "I'm just not prepared to speculate in public"
about Baca's future.
When the ax fell three days
later, outraged New Mexico environmentalists started gathering
petitions for Baca to run for governor against incumbent Bruce
King. King is a Democrat and public-lands rancher who had said
little on Baca's behalf nicer than, "We don't wish Jim any ill
Baca's successor is Mike Dombeck, a
career BLM employee who will be acting chief.
The reporter works
in Albuquerque, New