Endless pressure, endlessly applied


Never have a president and secretary of the Interior so disappointed conservationists as have Bill Clinton and Bruce Babbitt. The firing of Jim Baca as Bureau of Land Management director is simply the icing on a multi-layered cake of betrayal. We shouldn't be surprised, though.

Between nomination and taking office as secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt told a group of conservation executives, "Don't count on me to do the right thing. You have to make me do the right thing. Conservationists need to be barbarians at the gate with the Clinton administration."

We can't fault Babbitt for misleading us. In that regard he is a rare, honest politician and a cut above Cecil Andrus as secretary of the Interior. But where Andrus is a bare-knuckled alley fighter, Babbitt has as much spine as a loaf of white bread (unless he perceives you as being weak). Ed Abbey called him "Babbitt the Rabbit" when he was governor of Arizona. He has certainly played the rabbit against the timber barons in the Northwest ancient forests, against Big Sugar in the Everglades, against fastbuck developers in gnatcatcher habitat, and against the ranching gentry on grazing reform. Babbitt's boss, Bill Clinton, may be even less steadfast than Babbitt (and has none of the conservationist instincts of Andrus' boss, Jimmy Carter).

On each issue where Babbitt and Clinton have let down conservationists, we've asked, "Where's Al Gore?" Gore reportedly came to Baca's defense but was bested by Babbitt (not something to put on one's résumé). The expectations for Gore as vice president were akin to those for a prom date with the prettiest cheerleader. We should have been smarter. Instead of using his book Earth in the Balance as a window to the real Al Gore, we should have looked at his congressional record on conservation issues affecting Tennessee. We would have seen another Mo Udall.

But Babbitt warned us. Despite that warning, after the dark ages of Reagan and Bush, we wanted morning again. We wanted an administration and a secretary of the Interior who would protect ancient forests, desert grasslands, wetlands, and endangered species. We didn't get them. We will never get them. We will always get just politicians.

Now after Baca, let's listen to Bruce Babbitt and play the game we must: Make him do the right thing. Be barbarians at the gate of the Clinton administration. Don't expect Babbitt to be our white knight.

I'm not suggesting that we treat Clinton like Reagan and Babbitt like Watt. Ronald Reagan and James Watt were anomalies. Let's go back a score of years to the Nixon and Ford administrations for a model. And even earlier to Interior Secretary Stewart Udall. We did not expect them to do the right thing. We didn't delude ourselves that those administrations were our friends, whatever their rhetoric (and some of their rhetoric was pretty good). No, we understood that we had to make them do the right thing for conservation. Their doors were open to conservationists (unlike the out-of-kilter Reagan-Watt door). We skillfully applied pressure (as Brock Evans says, "Endless pressure, endlessly applied'). We applauded when they did the right thing - Udall supporting the Wilderness Act; Nixon banning 1080 and DDT, stopping the cross-Florida barge canal, issuing an executive order to control ORVs; Ford proposing an expansion of the National Park System. We were barbarians at the gate when necessary - against Udall on dams; against Nixon on the Alaska pipeline, the SST, Earl Butz's giving the national forests to the timber industry; against Ford on his threat to veto a good bill for the Flat Tops Wilderness in Colorado.

We can't count on George Frampton to save our chestnuts any more than we could count on Nat Reed doing so during the Nixon-Ford years. But we can approach the conservation-oriented government officials appointed by Clinton and apply pressure without end. Then they can do the right thing.

Conservationists at all levels need to learn from the history of administrations past. From Earth First!ers in the trees to the Gang of Ten, we need to study history and learn how David Brower, Stewart Brandborg, Harry Crandall, Clif Merritt, Brock Evans, and the other conservation gladiators of that era fought and often won against the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford administrations.

We were suckered and taken to the cleaners by Cecil Andrus in Carter's administration; we had the door slammed in our faces during the Reagan and Bush administrations. We won't find models there for how to deal with Clinton, Gore and Babbitt. We did a hell of a good job during the 16 years of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford, however. We were tough without being so obnoxious that the door was slammed in our faces. We didn't expect them to do the right thing. We pressured them to do the right thing. True, we didn't always succeed. But we had a better record than we have thus far with Clinton and Babbitt.

It's time today's conservation movements shows the backbone David Brower and the Sierra Club showed against Johnson-Udall and dams in the Grand Canyon (we won), the backbone Stewart Brandborg and The Wilderness Society showed against Nixon and the Alaska Pipeline (we lost but lessened the damage), the backbone Colorado conservationists showed against Ford's threatened veto of the Flat Tops Wilderness (we won).

Remember Jim Baca. Remember how roars from mice like Ben Nightmare Campbell, Jeff Bingaman, and other Western Democrats turned Babbitt the Rabbit and Slick Willy into Bert Lahr lions.

It's time we sent a message to the politicians of the Democratic Party that they can't take us for granted. We have to go back to the strategy of the pre-Carter conservation movement. There we'll learn the way for conservationists to get respect again. There we'll learn the way to make Babbitt and Clinton do the right thing.

Dave Foreman, co-founder of Earth First!, is executive director of Wild Earth, a quarterly magazine published by the Cenozoic Society, Box 455, Richmond, VT 05477.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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