Babbitt thrives in crossfire of industry, environmentalists


CASPER, Wyo. - After Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt testified before a U.S. Senate field hearing here on July 15, Sen. Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo., invited him to attend a lunchtime barbecue and rally lambasting Interior's grazing policy. Wallop added jokingly, "We've reserved a spit for you."

Perhaps to Wallop's surprise, the Clinton administration's top public-lands manager took him up on the invitation, affably chatting with ranchers and state politicians while, in the background, speaker after speaker railed against his policies and his personality.

Afterward, Babbitt said that being a sacrificial lamb comes with the job of running a department caught between conflicting mandates of "resource exploitation ... and resource conservation."

"Almost no Interior secretary has ever finished a four-year term," Babbitt said. "... It turns out the second one collapsed of a nervous breakdown after 13 days. Richard Ballinger (William Taft's Interior secretary) was driven out of office in a controversy which caused the collapse of the Republican Party and led to the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912. It's absolutely endless and the reason is this crossfire stuff."

Although Babbitt didn't mention it, one of the best examples of the rigors of his office is provided by Stan Hathaway, a former Republican governor of Wyoming, who served as Interior secretary under President Ford for just 32 days before resigning due to depression (HCN, 8/1/75).

Babbitt hasn't escaped the harsh treatment his predecessors experienced. Pressing an agenda that cuts across the West's environment and economy, he's been a favorite rhetorical target for ranchers, loggers and even Western Democratic governors. Some attacks come as much from allies in the environmental movement as from sworn enemies among commodity producers.

Environmental groups - which Babbitt says practically canonized him a year ago - now say his tendency to compromise has thwarted significant progress on an agenda in which they'd placed high hopes after 12 years of Republican control of the White House. The latest issue of the Sierra Club's magazine, for instance, calls Babbitt "a political pawn" and says his turnabouts have left environmentalists feeling "betrayed."

Babbitt takes much of this in stride. "How do you raise any money from a rancher or an environmentalist by saying, 'This is a systemic issue, it's full of complexity, there are lots of differing interests?' " he asks.

But the secretary adds that the unwillingness of interest groups on both sides to seek a middle ground will make it much harder to deal with resource use and protection. He says the interest groups still operate by a winner-take-all standard that no longer fits an era where the biggest problems revolve around the health of large, multifaceted ecosystems, vast expanses within which humans and their environment interact in complicated ways.

The days of legislating another national park and then sleeping soundly, secure in the notion that the natural world is safe, are over, according to Babbitt. "You have to look at the big picture.

"That means you complexify, you bring in lots of parties and it means you're looking for an equilibrium that is somehow going to fall short of the old standard of judgment, which was you're a hero if you put 40 acres of land into a national park. You've got a pristine, single use victory ... There just aren't many of those around anymore."

Can Babbitt drag the West into this new era of cooperation? As a two-term governor of Arizona, he was famous as a negotiator: bringing together opposing sides, locking the doors and extracting a solution by applying an unflinching reasonableness.

And as secretary of the Interior, Babbitt has applied his talent for spinning compromise on several high-profile issues, including ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest and the Florida Everglades, which has been badly damaged by polluted runoff from sugar production.

But those issues also show the difficulties of this approach.

In the Everglades, after the outline of a massive, $700 million recovery plan had been hammered out, all but one of the sugar companies withdrew. It took the intervention of Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, who mandated industry's cooperation, to save the plan.

Now the plan splits many of the differences between the industry and environmentalists without making either side happy.

"This is a huge, regional ecosystem restoration plan and our reward was that I go to Miami to give a speech and there are two groups of people picketing me, one on each side of the hotel," Babbitt said. "The sugar growers have organized a massive demonstration and the Everglades Coalition is on the other side carrying posters, as well."

The biggest problem with Babbitt, say his environmental critics, is that in Washington, D.C., compromise is viewed as weakness, and weakness is political suicide.

By rewriting and substantially weakening the grazing reform proposal in the hopes of winning Western support, they say, Babbitt has only emboldened his enemies and made it harder to press other items of his agenda.

"It creates a kind of feeding frenzy," according to Larry Mehlhaff, regional director of the Sierra Club. "If you show weakness at that level, people will try and push it as far as humanly possible. The only way you overcome that is by taking a stand and sticking by it."

There's certainly evidence to support that view. The opponents of reform of the 1872 Mining Law appear to be modeling their attack on the successes of the battle over grazing. Republicans in the Senate have threatened a filibuster if final legislation is too tough on industry, and Western governors have signed a letter complaining that reform could hobble local economies.

But in Casper, Wyo., Babbitt appeared unwavering after another skirmish with ranchers who might rather see him run out on a rail. He expressed no worry about the prospect of difficulties ahead or about losing environmentalists as cheerleaders and allies.

"It's in the nature of things that interest groups of any kind won't be in 100 percent agreement with people who have responsibility for administering and executing the laws," Babbitt says. "My job isn't to placate the opponents. My job is to listen and to learn and to put together something that is reasonable in the context of these large complicated systems.

"My real audience," says Babbitt, "is the 80 percent who are not on either side. That's the bottom line, and that's who I'm really speaking to."

Michael Riley, until recently a staff writer with the Casper Star-Tribune, will attend graduate school this fall.

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