Bruce Babbitt in the lion's den

  • Wyoming Sen. Malcolm Wallop "reserved a spit" for Babbitt

    Diane Sylvain

Elsewhere in this issue (page 4), writer Michael Riley describes how Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt attended a ranchers' barbecue. At the barbecue, as Babbitt knew they would, speaker after speaker tore into him. Throughout the talks, Riley reports, Babbitt chatted quietly with ranchers and local officials.

Babbitt's visit to the barbecue was another example of how he has turned ranchers' (and environmentalists') anger and frustration with Range Reform "94 against them.

It is part of a strategy that has kept him in the air for long hours, traveling to New Mexico where Anglo and Hispanic and Indian ranchers and Anglo environmentalists told him what a horrible policy he had hatched. Then to Utah to hear a similar message. And then over to Wyoming, to eat barbecue and hear himself drawn and quartered. And always he returns to Colorado - a pariah state because a few ranchers and environmentalists dared break bread together - to take a few additional raps.

Everywhere he went, ranchers and environmentalists unthinkingly provided him with great press. On the tube and in print, the image was of a patient official besieged by people united only in their determination to disagree.

We in the media have portrayed everyone in the West as a ban-the-cows environmentalist or a red-white-and-blue cowboy. But most people are neither. And if you talk to the unaffiliated, you learn that they think Bruce Babbitt is a pretty good guy who has given his all for peace, and been kicked in the face in thanks.

This sympathy, even when held by a majority, doesn't push bills past Western senators Wallop and Craig and Brown and Campbell. But over the long run, it can change both a region's values and its elected officials. November's elections will begin to test that possibility. For example, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer is running scared against a conservative Republican opponent. So he is campaigning strongly for more street lights from which to hang criminals, and more prisons to hold them in until the street lights can be erected. But Romer, a shrewd man in a tough spot, hasn't moved away from Babbitt. Far from it.

In Colorado's 3rd Congressional District, once the private property of dam builder and forest leveler Wayne Aspinall, a Democratic state senator and underdog named Linda Powers is challenging Republican Rep. Scott McInnis. She is pursuing the New West vote; her message is that Bruce Babbitt and consensus are the way to go. McInnis has spent his first two years in office vilifying Babbitt and grazing and mining reform.

By comparison, two popular Wyoming Democrats, Secretary of State Kathy Karpan, running for governor, and Gov. Mike Sullivan, running for Wallop's vacated Senate seat, are campaigning against Babbitt. Wyoming, of course, is still a different state from Colorado.

The lesson may be that Wyoming remains the Old West while Colorado is going the New West way of Nevada. But it is also possible that even in Wyoming, a little sense and moderation would win votes and elections.

The West is shifting

Ranchers and environmentalists face the same challenge politicians do in this rapidly shifting West. It is easy to criticize the ranchers and environmentalists, in this season of their mutual discontent, because the organizations that represent them face the terrible problem of adjusting to a new world.

For 12 years, under Reagan and Bush, we had lawless administration of public lands. That criminal behavior helped ranchers and miners and loggers make money, and it allowed environmental groups to gain lots of members (Americans don't like it when people steal their land and resources) and tie up logging in the courts.

Reagan and Bush also set in motion long-term change. Being accomplices to crimes so shamed the federal land management agencies that it accelerated major shifts in their internal cultures.

And there has been change at the top. At the U.S. Forest Service, Jack Ward Thomas came in telling his 30,000-plus troops to tell the truth and obey the law. The same message has come down from the top people in Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Reclamation. Pushed from below and above, the federal land management agencies will gradually become the keepers of the law rather than the flouters of the law. As a result, court injunctions to stop logging or to push cows off the public lands will become increasingly difficult to obtain. And as the public senses that the federal lands are being administered in a more moderate way, support for environmental groups that stick to 1980s tactics will decline.

That is why the organized public-land interests are furious at Babbitt: He is creating a middle ground where no one is very happy. Commodity interests are being forced to surrender some ill-gotten gains, and environmentalists are being forced to come down from the high ground we have occupied so effectively for so many years.

We are like Moses in reverse; we are being expelled from the Promised Land of sweeping injunctions and wilderness zoning into daunting ecological problems that need to be solved watershed by watershed. The ecologically devastated Western landscape that we are just beginning to understand will not be brought back by drawing "protective" boundaries around wilderness areas or national parks. Far from it.

Grappling with the ecological problems and the accompanying social and economic messes will be less dramatic than what we've been doing. In fact, the Marshall Matt Dillon generation of environmentalists that stopped the Reagan-Bush lawlessness may not have the skills or temperament to solve on-the-ground problems.

An internalized ethic

This period of transition doesn't obscure the fact that environmentalism has been victorious. The West has internalized much of what environmentalists fought for, and the region's ground rules and assumptions have changed. For example, that once great tree-cutting machine, the U.S. Forest Service, recently tendered a retire-early offer to its employees. The timber specialists rushed to accept the offer, for they know they have little future in the agency.

But environmentalism isn't being implemented as we had hoped, by creating gobs of wilderness and by expelling the commodity producers. Instead, the nation is attempting to muddle through and save at least some of the parts of the public land system. The broad public direction is to accommodate ranching and logging and mining and environmentalism in the twin tents of ecosystem management and consensus.

This is anathema to environmentalists and ranchers.

But they have no choice but to enter those tents. For what Bruce Babbitt demonstrated in Wyoming by attending the ranchers' barbecue was that he has marginalized his opponents. And he has sketched out a policy direction that future secretaries of Interior will have to follow, whichever party is in power. n

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

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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