Jim Baca says the Department of Interior is in deep trouble


A few days after Jim Baca was fired from his job as director of the Bureau of Land Management, he said:

"I will look into New Mexico political races and maybe run for governor. Maybe it's the governors who are running policy on public land."

Baca says he did anger several Western governors. "I went to Idaho and got (Democratic Gov. Cecil) Andrus mad on the bombing range. I got (Wyoming Democratic Gov. Mike) Sullivan mad on mineral royalties."

But he doesn't blame the governors for his downfall. He blames Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and his chief of staff, Tom Collier.

"It happened because they wouldn't stand up for their principles. I know how politics work. But I also know you have to stand up for your principles. And they wouldn't.

"This whole thing about me being abrasive and arrogant - it's just a bum rap. I come from a political background. I know how to treat people or I wouldn't have gotten elected twice by over 60 percent."

Part of Baca's problem was that even before Baca moved into his office at the BLM, Babbitt was serving as point man in the drive to change the rules on grazing the BLM land. And a few months ago, after his defeat in the U.S. Senate, Babbitt changed from trying to ram reform down the ranchers' throats to a more cooperative stance. That meant that Baca's biggest job over the next few years would be to implement a cooperative approach to grazing.

Baca's record was more consistent with Babbitt's initial approach. As New Mexico's elected Public Lands Commissioner, Baca had imposed a large increase on grazing fees on state land. And in the Dec. 28, 1992, issue of HCN, Baca told reporter Steve Stuebner: "These guys (ranchers) are in for the biggest reaming they've ever seen in the next Congress. They've been so successful in stopping any progress on this issue for far too long. These guys have to change; they just have to."

Baca says that while in the BLM, he backed Babbitt's attempt to negotiate with the ranchers. But after his dismissal he told Washington Post reporter Tom Kenworthy that ranchers are really the experts at whining. "With this group, I don't think you can reach a compromise." As for the other public-land users, "No matter how many compromises you work out, these traditional extractive Western industries will cry "rape." "

To Babbitt, who wouldn't go into detail on the firing, such differences may have been important. To Baca, they weren't. As Baca saw it, at stake in his firing were principles and morale within Interior. "The thing that concerns me is: Will my firing have a chilling effect on the rest of the staff? After all, this cowboy stuff is peanuts compared to the endangered species stuff."

So far as Baca is concerned, his fate was determined even before he was confirmed. "I had a tough confirmation in the U.S. Senate and not much support in that period from the administration. When the Western interests saw that, they figured I was vulnerable.

"I backed up my employees on the Idaho bombing range. When the BLM people in Idaho said we should take a second look, I agreed. And Andrus went ballistic." Baca says he didn't get the same support from his superiors. "They just wouldn't support me.

"I took over on May 17. On or about August 1, they said, "Stop going anyplace." I couldn't talk to a reporter or anyone. I hadn't been saying anything Bruce Babbitt wasn't saying. I don't know what this guy's problem was."

According to Baca, even though he angered a few Western governors, most were on the fence. "I'm a presidential appointee. So Interior had to lobby the White House to fire me. Tom Collier (Babbitt's chief of staff) lobbied the Western governors to demand my ouster from the White House."

Baca says the problems in Interior go beyond him. "There's an atmosphere of fear at Interior. You will see that nobody gets to say much at Interior, even though they're really talented." Contact with Babbitt is very limited, Baca says. "I only had two one-on-one meetings with Babbitt," and neither was about policy. "None of the bureau heads get in to see him to talk on policy."

He also says lack of help from the top has hurt BLM. "Five state director jobs are open. But I couldn't get the power to appoint state directors. So we have acting directors in Alaska, California and New Mexico, and two coming, in Montana and Nevada. It was gridlock."

Baca doesn't think the BLM has a bright path ahead. "I'd be surprised to see them appoint anyone within a year. They'll keep a career guy in there who will do what they tell him.

"So they've kicked that poor agency in the teeth again. And things had been looking up."

Baca makes it clear that it was not just the BLM that got kicked in the teeth. "It was no way to treat a person; that's what hurts me most."

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