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.

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