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Know the West

It's deja vu yet again, says Bruce Babbitt


Washington, D.C. - On Dec. 24, 1992, while most Americans were eating Christmas Eve dinner, the four Marstons were listening to All Things Considered on National Public Radio. The occasion was Bill Clinton's nomination of Bruce Babbitt to be secretary of Interior. To be honest, the occasion was NPR reporter John Nielson's taped interview of me reacting to the nomination.

I told Nielson, my family and a possible 40 or 50 other listeners that night that Babbitt would be a great secretary of Interior, or maybe I said the greatest. The way Gov. Babbitt had held together the Yugoslavia of the West - Arizona - spoke to his political skills. Roots in ranching and environmental credentials as president of the League of Conservation Voters would help him solve public-lands grazing. With that sore healed, the West's other environmental-cultural disputes would fall into place. I had all four years figured out. It was flawless punditry.

Matters have not gone precisely as predicted. Ranchers use him as a fund-raising poster boy. Environmentalists attack him as a sell-out. The press has so lost interest that a reporter from Paonia, Colo., can come to Washington and get an hour with him.

The interview was in the Soviet-style palace FDR's Interior secretary, Harold Ickes, built in the 1930s. Babbitt occupies not only its biggest office, but supposedly the biggest office in official Washington. Big but homey, fit for a commissar with a taste for well-stuffed sofas, oil paintings and fireplaces. Portraits of previous commissars - Cecil Andrus, James Watt, Manuel Lujan - line the wood-paneled walls of the corridor leading to his office.

Mine is a ghoulish mission: I'm visiting someone who has suffered terrible reverses to see if he's holding up. Those who beat the War on the West drums blame him for destroying the traditional, hardworking, tobacco-chewing, manly West. Environmentalists blame him for not destroying that West. Everyone thinks he helped sink the region's Democratic candidates in 1994.

So I should have found a dejected Babbitt slumped in his chair, or on the phone looking for another job. One Washington official told me, well before things got really tough, that one day soon Babbitt - whom this man sees as an American aristocrat - would just float out of the secretary's office, and end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, or as head of the World Bank, or as ambassador to the Court of St. James. Aristocratic, but not tough; not in there for the long haul.

The official had made a shrewd guess, but like me, he was wrong. Babbitt is still there. Maybe he hasn't been offered the World Bank. Or maybe Babbitt believes in what he's doing, and doesn't think anyone could have done better than he. If it's the latter, that makes two of us.

Because hordes of competent reporters have been through Babbitt's office, and because they all see his reign as one of botched political opportunities, he knows the script. I don't have to ask him about the Clinton betrayal.

"Reporters come here and get into this endless second-guessing about that famous time when the president took grazing and mining fees out of the budget. They tell me: If I had just done a few things differently, everything would have been OK."

Babbitt doesn't think everything would have been OK. "We knew the wave was running the wrong way when we took office. And we knew it was our job to fight it, regardless." Although Babbitt claims he saw the West's uprising coming, he admits: "I was surprised by its intensity."

I do ask about the days he spent in the air, commuting to consensus grazing meetings in Colorado - meetings that moved about as fast as paint cracks. Critics are divided about the trips: did they only waste Babbitt's time, or did they also sabotage grazing reform?

"I don't regret my trips West at all. Seeds have been planted, and they will continue to grow."

Babbitt believes his efforts are helping the West to move through an inevitable cycle. The current Western uprising, he says, "isn't a revolution, it's a repetition."

He was run over, he says, not by political mistakes but by history playing an old Western song.

Babbitt says Westerners revolted after President Teddy Roosevelt's term, reacting to his creation of national forests. And so loudly did they demand free run of the public land in the 1920s that President Herbert Hoover offered the federal land to the states. Ranchers, calling the shots for the Western states, rejected the offer. Why pay property taxes on land they were already using for free? Babbitt says.

In the 1950s, rebellion again. Historian Bernard DeVoto, fighting from his Harper's Easy Chair, helped stop it that time. And the late 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion ended when James Watt took over at Interior, promising to give the West the public lands.

According to Babbitt, the periodic uprisings are "like Japanese Kabuki drama: everyone ritually dons ancient masks and plays out their roles."

And like Japanese Kabuki, he goes on, the Western Kabuki always ends the same: "With a strengthened commitment to the public land."

In past cycles, sagebrush rebellions have been quelled by Easterners, whose senators and representatives forced the creation of national parks, national forests, and wilderness. It was Easterners who strengthened the Bureau of Land Management, who set aside huge portions of Alaska as natural, who prevented the mining of Utah's Kaiparowits Plateau, who kept Grand Canyon undammed, who stopped James Watt from selling the public's land.

This time it will be different, Babbitt predicts. He doesn't know if the reaction to the rancher-miner-logger revolt will come in a year or in several years. And he doesn't know how much in the way of beauty and resources will be lost before the reaction comes. But when reaction comes, Babbitt says, it will "in large measure come from within the West." It was to encourage reform from within the West that he commuted back and forth to Colorado.

"Don't you see? That's the wager I'm making: that the West is ready to protect the federal land itself." n

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.