Bruce Babbitt as Captain Consensus


What do the following personages have in common: Albert Schweitzer, Linus Pauling, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Bruce Babbitt? Type O blood? A secret fondness for fondue, perhaps?

Nope. According to Ed Marston, the normally skeptical publisher of High Country News, they all should be recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. Marston's ecstatic encomium was penned in Paonia the same week Babbitt gracelessly fired Jim Baca as director of the BLM for obeying the law and telling the truth.

No matter. Babbitt's public-lands grazing workshops, Marston argues, have accomplished the impossible. They've brought warring factions to the table in a consensus process that just might get everyone to agree to something. To date they've agreed not to mention the subjects of grazing fees, water "rights," or the rampant ecological damage caused by cows. The so-called Colorado Grazing Model (the Rocky Mountain state is rivaling California on the Wu-Wu chart these days) is about to be imbricated across the Interior West.

Unfortunately, Babbitt's grazing groups have been anything but representative samples of the spectrum of opinion on public-lands grazing. Instead, participation has been limited to ranchers, advocates of grazing "reform," and those, like Marston, who contend that grazing is merely a lesser evil, a quaint cultural buffer against the suburbanization of the Western landscape.

Uninvited to the meetings were any of the growing contingent of grazing abolitionists, such as Bruce Apple, George Wuerthner, Patricia Wolff and Lynn Jacobs. Also absent was anyone residing in a metro-area or east of the 100th Meridian - those who in large measure foot the $100 million-a-year bill for the West's obsession with its sacred cows.

From my vantage out here on the foggy fringe of the West, Babbitt appears to be affixed to the edifice of the administration like some strange, grinning gargoyle, sporting bovine horns and hooves - a living articulation of the latest cachet of Clintonesque kitsch. He is Captain Consensus, the eco-friend of the range-worn cowboy, gypo logger, and pick-ax miner, who endlessly spouts the empty argot of ecosystem management to any focus group that'll listen.

Yet, like most sitting and former Western governors (Oregon's Barbara Roberts is the only exception that springs to mind), Babbitt remains something of an entrenched xenophobe and, according to Latino activists in the Southwest, a repressed racist. One wonders, for example, if the boulder-white, Western-purist Cecil Andrus would have been treated with the same condescending disdain Babbitt laid on Baca, a Catholic and Hispanic.

The future of the West is for rural (i.e., white, male, Protestant/Mormon) Westerners to decide, the anti-multi-culturalist Babbitt boasts. And what a future it portends to be.

Gravid with self-importance, Babbitt droned on during his recent roadshow about his vision for a New West, a West that includes corporate sponsorship of the national parks (Welcome to Mitsubishi's Yosemite, Chevron Presents the Grand Canyon!), regressive fees for hiking and camping on public lands, and the institutionalization of ecological logging, grazing and mining.

Have I seen this movie, or is it a remake?

New wilderness areas, national parks, and wildlife refuges don't have much of a future in Babbitt's New West (as proved by the Interior Department's meager budget for new land acquisitions), and neither do spotted owls, grizzly bears, or Kootenai sturgeon.

Not to worry. The ecological cleansing of the West will proceed under the guise of consensus. (I've come to think of the consensus process as a kind of intellectual venereal disease, exciting enough while you're engaged in its sequences of mutual manipulation, but a recurrent and painful nightmare afterwards.) From now on, extinction will be a matter of informed consent.

So it seems that while Bruce Babbitt may not turn out to be the Mahatma Gandhi of the public lands, he just might evolve into their version of Henry Kissinger, ever faithful in his mission to destroy the West in order to save an anachronistic image of it. Maybe there's a peace prize in Babbitt's future, after all. Hell, Kissinger got one for bringing the "pax Americana" to Vietnam about the same time he orchestrated the secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia. There's more than one way to "win" a peace (of the West, that is).

Jeffrey St. Clair edits Wild Forest Review, 3758 SE Milwaukie, in Portland, Oregon, 97202.

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