BLM chief Jim Baca leaves amidst cheers and boos

  • Jim Baca


Jim Baca's nine-month run as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management chief ended Feb. 3. After Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt made it clear in a private meeting that Baca's services at BLM were no longer desired, the usually outspoken Baca reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a piece of paper containing his resignation.

"I told him it was probably best if I went on," Baca said later.

It was a quiet climax to a bizarre week, in which Baca's job was at various times threatened, declared safe and threatened again. It was a week in which Babbitt waffled, environmentalists watched with horror and wise-use groups cheered.

"One down and 99 to go," said Mike Fusco, field coordinator of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association.

Later, Fusco's boss, association director Al Schneeberger, reprimanded Fusco and restricted his media access. But everyone knew what Fusco meant. Baca, 48, a former New Mexico land commissioner and the most vocal proponent of public-lands reform in the Clinton administration, was gone, leaving prospects for reform murkier than ever.

In private meetings with top environmentalists shortly after Baca quit, Babbitt offered repeated assurances that he would not back away from his plans to offer a new package of grazing-reform regulations in early March. Indeed, some sources said that Babbitt and his aides were letting it be known that Baca's outspokenness on reform issues was alienating powerful Western politicians so much that it would be easier to push reforms through if Baca were gone.

Environmentalists, however, were skeptical that grazing reforms stood much chance without prodding from Baca. They worried that other long-held dreams, such as getting Utah and New Mexico BLM wilderness bills passed, would sink too.

And for the first time, some were publicly raising questions about Babbitt, whose appointment environmentalists had fought for a year ago. Then they fought a second fight, this time to keep him from being appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court because they felt he was invaluable at Interior.

Now, environmentalists noted that even before Baca was ousted, the latest People For the West! newsletter contained a lengthy article praising Babbitt's decision to back off plans for national grazing standards in favor of local controls (HCN, 1/24/94). Beneath a picture of Babbitt, the anti-environmentalist group wrote, "Changing his spots? Babbitt, super greenie turned populist?"

"When Babbitt was first appointed, I said in an interview that he had an opportunity to be one of the great Interior secretaries," said Dan Hellman, The Wilderness Society's vice president for conservation. "Here it is one year later, and he has not lived up to our expectations."

Jay Hair, president of the National Wildlife Federation, said bluntly, "It doesn't matter if James Watt or Bruce Babbitt is secretary."

Exactly why Baca got the ax remains unclear (see story below). Publicly, Babbitt has said nothing beyond a press statement that the two men had different management styles. Baca called the management-styles explanation "bogus."

"I have been offered up to Western senators and governors and the extractive industries as appeasement," Baca said. "I came here adept at politics, but I wasn't expecting politics as usual. I thought this was a different kind of administration."

What's clear is that Baca's straight-talking ways and occasional abrasiveness did not work in Washington, D.C.

He alienated some Republican senators last September by writing an internal memo saying that the administration would push through its range reform programs administratively after the Senate had voted to block them. He annoyed Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, because Baca didn't make the customary courtesy visit that BLM nominees usually make with committee members before being confirmed.

A turning point came after Andrus wrote Babbitt a letter last August blasting Baca. The Idaho governor complained that Baca gave a press conference saying he was skeptical about the military expansion plans for the state, without having spelled out his concerns to Andrus first. Baca later said Andrus "lied," and that Baca had talked to the governor the day before the press conference.

"Frankly, my friend, you don't have enough political allies in the West to treat us this shabbily," Andrus wrote Babbitt.

The end for Baca came in Washington-esque fashion. In late January, word leaked out that Babbitt had offered Baca a deputy assistant secretary's post. Babbitt's aides said publicly on Jan. 27 that Baca could keep his old job if he chose. But the next evening, when Babbitt and Baca met privately, Baca said that when he told Babbitt he wanted to stay as BLM director, his boss replied they'd talk again when he returned from vacation in a few days.

On Jan. 31, as environmentalists and People For the West! were grinding out faxed messages urging the White House to keep or fire Baca, Babbitt told reporters, "I'm just not prepared to speculate in public" about Baca's future.

When the ax fell three days later, outraged New Mexico environmentalists started gathering petitions for Baca to run for governor against incumbent Bruce King. King is a Democrat and public-lands rancher who had said little on Baca's behalf nicer than, "We don't wish Jim any ill will."

Baca's successor is Mike Dombeck, a career BLM employee who will be acting chief.

The reporter works in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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