"That was the biggest bunch of BS I've ever heard," complained one man. His friend agreed: "Yeah, I'll bet neither Babbitt nor Williams have ever been near a timber mill."
Those comments were overheard as the two young men heard left a
University of Montana auditorium after I’d introduced former
Interior Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, and he’d
given a keynote talk. My 18 years as a Montana congressman
overlapped five of Babbitt's years in the Clinton administration,
and during that time we were often allies when it came to issues
involving the West.
In my introduction, I said Interior
Department Secretaries from the Rockies have starkly represented
one or the other side in the West’s persistent debate: James
Watt, Manny Lujan and Gale Norton accelerated resource extraction;
Stewart Udall, Cecil Andrus and Bruce Babbitt encouraged the
husbandry of our natural resources.
As he did during his
time in Washington, D.C., Babbitt, made the case for reforming our
permissive grazing and mining laws. He urged the consideration of a
reduced Western extractive economy as long as it paid its own way.
We both agreed there was a lot of restoration needed in the region.
Why do we think that? Because Bruce Babbitt and I have
both gotten our hands dirty working the land. Babbitt's family ran
cattle on and near desert lands in the Southwest. Although Babbitt
insists he was never a wrangler, he roped, herded, branded, grew
the calluses and knows how it feels to bite the dust. He saw the
economic benefits that profited his family, paid his way through
the best schools and helped him launch a successful political
But here’s what else he saw firsthand --
the destruction caused by overgrazing land slow to replenish its
grasses. Basic fairness required him to question why the public's
financial return from its grazed resources was small while he, his
family and friends profited.
As a young man, I worked in
the copper mines of Butte, Mont., as a day’s-pay laborer.
This was gritty work that peeled the skin and seared the lungs,
though for a time, we were the best-paid industrial workers in the
Today, I can stand on the edge of the Berkeley Pit
and stare into the billions of gallons of toxic soup filling that
remnant of Butte's century of mining. Like Babbitt, I have come to
believe there is a better way.
The essential matter is
not that two former federal officials have reached that conclusion.
People throughout the West understand that the pillars of our old
economy -- in particular, logging and mining -- have crumbled from
the corrosive effects of fewer jobs due to increasing productivity,
depleted resources and international competition.
Westerners understand, too, that repair of the abused land and its
waters is an economic and biological imperative. Restoration
projects are already under way, with one in Montana just downstream
from the confluence of the Clark Fork and the Blackfoot River, of A
River Runs Through It fame. The focus is on a decaying
hydroelectric dam that holds back a century of mining debris,
including 2,100 tons of arsenic. Some citizens want the arsenic and
the dam itself removed, a move that would create jobs for miners
and construction workers. The result would not be the historic
products of gold, copper or silver, but clean waters for recreation
and for fish to return to their ancient spawning grounds.
Utah is beginning a series of restorative river projects called The
Blue Ribbon Fisheries Initiative, while Colorado is restoring the
upper Rio Grande. Arizona is in the first of a two-stage
restoration project known as the Fort Valley Ecosystem Project on
9,100 acres of land in the northern part of the state. The Great
Basin Restoration Initiative encompasses five states and will
restore 1.7 million acres.
Restoration need not rely on
tax dollars alone. Innovative private-sector efforts continue to be
developed through stewardship contracts and biomass energy and
fiberboard projects already on line. Worker-owned small businesses
nimble enough to utilize logging slash and merchantable thinnings
already show entrepreneurial promise.
So, Bruce Babbitt
and I weren’t just talking a "bunch of BS" about the West and
its future; we were saying that we’d been there and done that
-- we’d exploited the land for what we and many others could
drag out of it. We’ve come to believe there must be a better