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Know the West

The new Secretary of the Interior - Bruce Babbitt


High Country News -- January 25, 1993
The new Secretary of the Interior - Bruce Babbitt

The new Secretary of Interior once explained why he became head of the League of Conservation Voters: "I always wanted to be president of something."

Bruce Babbitt had wanted to be president of the United States; but his thoughtful 1988 campaign captivated the press and not the public.

Although the White House eluded Babbitt, he has been attorney general and two-term governor of Arizona, a founding board member of the Grand Canyon Trust, and, most recently, an attorney in Phoenix.

Some cabinet officials come to their posts having left few "footprints" on the issues; Babbitt, 54, has left deep gouge marks. As governor, he helped change Arizona's use of groundwater, he helped arrange large swaps of land between the state and the federal government, and he helped control emissions from copper smelters. Most recently, he represented rural Nevada in its attempt to stave off a Las Vegas water grab.

His contempt for the West's old-boy politics is softened, slightly, by humor. One of his stump stories relates how Arizona sent Carl Hayden to Congress in 1927 to gain seniority and build the Central Arizona Project. During 42 years in Congress, Babbitt says, Hayden had only one close call: He was almost beaten by rumors that he was dead. An enterprising Arizona newspaper, Babbitt says, sent a reporter to Washington, D.C., where he found Hayden in a hospital - still alive. The photo of Hayden waving weakly from his bed brought him another landslide victory.

Hayden spent four decades inching up the seniority ladder so he could force construction of the CAP. Now a new native son of Arizona, with very different views of the West, takes over a powerful federal position.

Babbitt expressed his views on public lands policy in a talk titled "Public Use and the Future of the Federal Lands" given in March 1990 at a symposium sponsored by the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, Boulder. It was printed in A Society to Match the Scenery, edited by Gary Holthaus, Patricia N. Limerick, Charles Wilkinson and Eve Stryker, 1991, the University of Colorado Press. In it, he takes on three of the West's holiest cows: multiple use, water development, and state control of water. Excerpts are reprinted below.