Bruce Babbitt and I have seen the past, and it no longer works

  "That was the biggest bunch of BS I've ever heard," complained one man. His friend agreed: "Yeah, I'll bet neither Babbitt nor Williams have ever been near a timber mill."

Those comments were overheard as the two young men heard left a University of Montana auditorium after I’d introduced former Interior Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, and he’d given a keynote talk. My 18 years as a Montana congressman overlapped five of Babbitt's years in the Clinton administration, and during that time we were often allies when it came to issues involving the West.

In my introduction, I said Interior Department Secretaries from the Rockies have starkly represented one or the other side in the West’s persistent debate: James Watt, Manny Lujan and Gale Norton accelerated resource extraction; Stewart Udall, Cecil Andrus and Bruce Babbitt encouraged the husbandry of our natural resources.

As he did during his time in Washington, D.C., Babbitt, made the case for reforming our permissive grazing and mining laws. He urged the consideration of a reduced Western extractive economy as long as it paid its own way. We both agreed there was a lot of restoration needed in the region.

Why do we think that? Because Bruce Babbitt and I have both gotten our hands dirty working the land. Babbitt's family ran cattle on and near desert lands in the Southwest. Although Babbitt insists he was never a wrangler, he roped, herded, branded, grew the calluses and knows how it feels to bite the dust. He saw the economic benefits that profited his family, paid his way through the best schools and helped him launch a successful political career.

But here’s what else he saw firsthand -- the destruction caused by overgrazing land slow to replenish its grasses. Basic fairness required him to question why the public's financial return from its grazed resources was small while he, his family and friends profited.

As a young man, I worked in the copper mines of Butte, Mont., as a day’s-pay laborer. This was gritty work that peeled the skin and seared the lungs, though for a time, we were the best-paid industrial workers in the world.

Today, I can stand on the edge of the Berkeley Pit and stare into the billions of gallons of toxic soup filling that remnant of Butte's century of mining. Like Babbitt, I have come to believe there is a better way.

The essential matter is not that two former federal officials have reached that conclusion. People throughout the West understand that the pillars of our old economy -- in particular, logging and mining -- have crumbled from the corrosive effects of fewer jobs due to increasing productivity, depleted resources and international competition.

We Westerners understand, too, that repair of the abused land and its waters is an economic and biological imperative. Restoration projects are already under way, with one in Montana just downstream from the confluence of the Clark Fork and the Blackfoot River, of A River Runs Through It fame. The focus is on a decaying hydroelectric dam that holds back a century of mining debris, including 2,100 tons of arsenic. Some citizens want the arsenic and the dam itself removed, a move that would create jobs for miners and construction workers. The result would not be the historic products of gold, copper or silver, but clean waters for recreation and for fish to return to their ancient spawning grounds.

Utah is beginning a series of restorative river projects called The Blue Ribbon Fisheries Initiative, while Colorado is restoring the upper Rio Grande. Arizona is in the first of a two-stage restoration project known as the Fort Valley Ecosystem Project on 9,100 acres of land in the northern part of the state. The Great Basin Restoration Initiative encompasses five states and will restore 1.7 million acres.

Restoration need not rely on tax dollars alone. Innovative private-sector efforts continue to be developed through stewardship contracts and biomass energy and fiberboard projects already on line. Worker-owned small businesses nimble enough to utilize logging slash and merchantable thinnings already show entrepreneurial promise.

So, Bruce Babbitt and I weren’t just talking a "bunch of BS" about the West and its future; we were saying that we’d been there and done that -- we’d exploited the land for what we and many others could drag out of it. We’ve come to believe there must be a better way.

Pat Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). The former Montana congressman lives in Missoula, Montana, where he is a senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • TECHNICAL ADVISOR TO THE GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT
    Northern Plains Resource Council seeks an independent contractor to implement the Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) between local communities and the Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company in Montana....
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.