A few days after Jim Baca was fired from his job as director of the Bureau of Land Management, he said:
"I will look into New Mexico political
races and maybe run for governor. Maybe it's the governors who are
running policy on public land."
Baca says he did
anger several Western governors. "I went to Idaho and got
(Democratic Gov. Cecil) Andrus mad on the bombing range. I got
(Wyoming Democratic Gov. Mike) Sullivan mad on mineral royalties."
But he doesn't blame the governors for his
downfall. He blames Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and his chief
of staff, Tom Collier.
"It happened because they
wouldn't stand up for their principles. I know how politics work.
But I also know you have to stand up for your principles. And they
"This whole thing about me being
abrasive and arrogant - it's just a bum rap. I come from a
political background. I know how to treat people or I wouldn't have
gotten elected twice by over 60 percent."
of Baca's problem was that even before Baca moved into his office
at the BLM, Babbitt was serving as point man in the drive to change
the rules on grazing the BLM land. And a few months ago, after his
defeat in the U.S. Senate, Babbitt changed from trying to ram
reform down the ranchers' throats to a more cooperative stance.
That meant that Baca's biggest job over the next few years would be
to implement a cooperative approach to
Baca's record was more consistent with
Babbitt's initial approach. As New Mexico's elected Public Lands
Commissioner, Baca had imposed a large increase on grazing fees on
state land. And in the Dec. 28, 1992, issue of HCN, Baca told
reporter Steve Stuebner: "These guys (ranchers) are in for the
biggest reaming they've ever seen in the next Congress. They've
been so successful in stopping any progress on this issue for far
too long. These guys have to change; they just have to."
Baca says that while in the BLM, he backed
Babbitt's attempt to negotiate with the ranchers. But after his
dismissal he told Washington Post reporter Tom Kenworthy that
ranchers are really the experts at whining. "With this group, I
don't think you can reach a compromise." As for the other
public-land users, "No matter how many compromises you work out,
these traditional extractive Western industries will cry "rape."
To Babbitt, who wouldn't go into detail on the
firing, such differences may have been important. To Baca, they
weren't. As Baca saw it, at stake in his firing were principles and
morale within Interior. "The thing that concerns me is: Will my
firing have a chilling effect on the rest of the staff? After all,
this cowboy stuff is peanuts compared to the endangered species
So far as Baca is concerned, his fate
was determined even before he was confirmed. "I had a tough
confirmation in the U.S. Senate and not much support in that period
from the administration. When the Western interests saw that, they
figured I was vulnerable.
"I backed up my
employees on the Idaho bombing range. When the BLM people in Idaho
said we should take a second look, I agreed. And Andrus went
ballistic." Baca says he didn't get the same support from his
superiors. "They just wouldn't support me.
took over on May 17. On or about August 1, they said, "Stop going
anyplace." I couldn't talk to a reporter or anyone. I hadn't been
saying anything Bruce Babbitt wasn't saying. I don't know what this
guy's problem was."
According to Baca, even
though he angered a few Western governors, most were on the fence.
"I'm a presidential appointee. So Interior had to lobby the White
House to fire me. Tom Collier (Babbitt's chief of staff) lobbied
the Western governors to demand my ouster from the White House."
Baca says the problems in Interior go beyond
him. "There's an atmosphere of fear at Interior. You will see that
nobody gets to say much at Interior, even though they're really
talented." Contact with Babbitt is very limited, Baca says. "I only
had two one-on-one meetings with Babbitt," and neither was about
policy. "None of the bureau heads get in to see him to talk on
He also says lack of help from the top
has hurt BLM. "Five state director jobs are open. But I couldn't
get the power to appoint state directors. So we have acting
directors in Alaska, California and New Mexico, and two coming, in
Montana and Nevada. It was gridlock."
doesn't think the BLM has a bright path ahead. "I'd be surprised to
see them appoint anyone within a year. They'll keep a career guy in
there who will do what they tell him.
kicked that poor agency in the teeth again. And things had been
Baca makes it clear that it was not
just the BLM that got kicked in the teeth. "It was no way to treat
a person; that's what hurts me most."
Marston, HCN publisher