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Babbitt in the woods: the Clinton environmental revolution that wasn't.

The Clinton environmental revolution that wasn't

Ten years ago I sat in a limousine in the basement of the Interior Department with the secretary, James Watt, while he railed against environmentalists, those "hard-core, left-wing radicals, manipulating the press ... Their real objective," he said, "is partisan politics to change the form of government."

I remember the desperate eyes behind Coke-bottle glasses and the voice of absolute certainty. A born-again Christian, Watt inspired antiphonal denunciations among his opponents - a director of the Wilderness Society once described him as "the worst thing that ever happened to America" - by determinedly exploiting vast federal lands in the West. He cleaved to exhortations from Genesis entombed in his cranial El Capitan ("Have dominion over ... every living thing") and disposed of public resources as quickly as possible.

Politically, Watt reeked of gasoline, cow manure, and entrepreneurial piety, but he was a consummate bureaucrat, if an odd one. The greatest claim he made for his tenure was that he had larded into the department's bureaucracy lower-level functionaries who shared his views, environmental land mines.

Watt was followed as secretary by Reagan's trail-riding buddy, William Clark, by Watt's more diplomatic cyborg, Donald Hodel, and finally by Manuel Lujan, perhaps the shortest attention span ever to take in the Fourth of July fireworks from the balcony outside the office of irascible old Harold Ickes, secretary of the interior under Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. None of these men had come to office with any great sense of mission, and they were duly jettisoned by the permanent government when their time came, leaving little behind but demoralization.

Since that meeting in the limousine I had developed a keen interest in the West, and had gone on to write a book about it. And recently I had begun to wonder about the mood at Interior under the Democrats, now that Bruce Babbitt had been made secretary and Watt's demons put into play.

An enlightened environmentalism was precious to Bill Clinton's core constituency and helped elect him president. Those voters anticipated the undoing of twelve years of Republican environmental neglect, a job that would surely involve remaking the Interior Department. During the campaign, Clinton led his supporters to believe that he would raise grazing fees on public lands. The issue had been batted around Washington for decades but never acted upon, and Clinton had latched on to it as a way of announcing an end to business as usual at Interior.

Clinton's choice to accomplish this and other ecological corrections was Bruce Babbitt, putative savior of America's public lands and resources. A westerner and avowed outdoorsman, Babbitt had served as an activist attorney general of Arizona and as governor for two terms; his appointment as interior secretary was seen as vital, so much so that the environmental movement's custodial organizations and their baby-boomer membership despaired when it looked like Babbitt might end up instead on Clinton's Supreme Court. Now firmly in place at Interior, Babbitt seemed to herald the reformist millennium, and as such was the subject of many glowing profiles and interviews. Whether he will be allowed to live up to the advance billing is a question that is now in the process of being answered.

The carpet in the secretary's outer office on the sixth floor has been changed from russet to sky blue. Portraits of recent secretaries hanging on the richly paneled walls reflect a self-conscious individualism; Watt has been rendered in a dark suit, more mortician than proprietor of 503 million acres, which is much of the remaining American endowment of forest and prairie, ranchland, and mineral wealth - to be virtually given away or held in trust. Frederick Jackson Turner wrote in his seminal 1893 paper "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" that the frontier shaped American democracy and character by providing cheap land, and that the frontier was no more.

What's left of the frontier is now administered by Bruce Babbitt. I found him sitting at his desk at one end of the magnificent room atop Interior's southwest wing, one of the most impressive offices in Washington; it was used boldly by Ickes to build an empire in the Thirties and Forties, but only ceremonially by Watt, who squirreled himself away in what had once served as Ickes's bedroom. Babbitt was talking on the telephone to a congressman, shirtsleeves rolled up, in the shadow of art inspired by the West - a sculpture of a soaring eagle, oils of canyon lands, and Native American regalia. "This is just a heads-up," he was saying, the subject of their conversation being grazing fees. "I need you guys ... I'm not giving up anything until I see what I get back."

I thought Babbitt seemed vaguely out of place, more the softspoken, unassuming Main Street regular than the environmental nimrod or commanding bureaucratic presence. At the beginning of his term he was considered to be the least potent of the President's advisers, partly because he seemed the most approachable, a human face at the klieg-lit White House conference table.

At first, the impression seemed to be confirmed. President Clinton had quickly backed away from his position on raising grazing fees in the face of opposition from a group of western congressmen led by Senator Max Baucus of Montana. (Baucus reportedly was appalled that Clinton didn't suggest a compromise.) The sound Washingtonians remember from that day is the collective grunt of lobbyists happily rising from the banquettes in various restaurants. Babbitt told me that the President did not back down, that this was a misperception on the part of the press. "I made a tactical error," he said, "by including grazing fees in the budget and separating the fees from the environmental reforms. We're going to get both."

Babbitt's new plan was to bypass Congress altogether; as interior secretary, he possessed the regulatory authority to raise grazing fees unilaterally. That didn't seem to work, either. If he had put the action off until after Congress acted on the Interior appropriations bill, Babbitt might have prevailed without a fight, but he announced too soon his intention to modify the subsidy and to end the domination of range management by the people - ranchers - that Interior is supposed to regulate. For the previous twelve years the Senate had been content to let the Wattites and their successors at Interior run things, knowing that the Republicans would act to satisfy ranchers' demands and preserve the status quo. Faced with this Babbittry, however, the Senate decided to override the usual procedure and pass a law that in effect micromanages Interior by legislative fiat, including a moratorium on the fees.

"The cowboys are kicking our butt," I was later told by an Interior appointee.

Finally, this fall, Babbitt managed to have the Senate initiative killed in the joint conference committee, thanks in part to his "heads-up" calls to various congressmen, and in October both parties agreed to the fee rise. It had to be subjected to a final vote in Congress, but the contest got the attention of a public not routinely exposed to the concept of an "animal unit month," a bureaucratic characterization of what is supposedly a pastoral phenomenon: feeding a cow and a calf or five sheep for a month on the nation's commons. The price would rise from $1.86 to $3.45, bringing in less than $20 million - chicken feed. Only 27,000 ranchers would be affected, many of them corporations rather than family outfits.

Many in the environmentalist camp viewed grazing fees as a test case: if they could be raised significantly, the reasoning went, other adjustments might also be made, and not just on rangeland. Corporations might be prevented from carting off minerals without paying for them. "Miners" might no longer be permitted de facto free vacation cabins on public land while wreaking havoc with patently bogus claims. The attention of Americans living elsewhere, those of us in what Walter Prescott Webb, in his book The Great Plains, called the humid regions, might focus on western water rights and wonder aloud why a few farmers and ranchers can own whole rivers and run them dry in the dry years.

Making such adjustments would mean dismantling a system that has been in effect for more than a century. The Interior Department was created in 1849 to oversee a large chunk of the intermontane plain and desert extending from the Rockies to the Pacific and from Mexico to Canada. The department includes all the national parks, but the vast preponderance of Interior land lies in the twelve quite different western states (including Alaska), much of which still belong to all Americans. This is because the lands were acquired by the federal government by purchase and treaty after the nation was formed and parceled out to those brave, foolish, or avaricious enough to occupy a relatively small portion of them. Interior functions today as the clean-up crew for Manifest Destiny.

In an agency accustomed to giving things away, Jim Watt's behavior, though perhaps more flamboyant than that of most interior secretaries, had been anything but anomalous. When I asked Babbitt if Watt's influence continued to be felt in the department, he said, "I came in here wondering if bureaucrats were manning machine-gun nests." He took no enfilade on arrival, but instead found "an outpouring of enthusiasm and relief. This is the department of Rachel Carson. People are here because they believe in its mission ... I haven't spent one moment since worrying about the problem."

The General Accounting Office had been worrying about it, though, following a directive from Congress at the outset of the Clinton Administration to study a phenomenon known as "burrowing." Burrowers are political appointees, officially called "conversions," who progress from Schedule C appointments (political) to Schedule A (civil service), thus avoiding competitive review. The GAO discovered that between January 1992 and March 1993, m the thirty-three government agencies studied, hundreds of those appointees had become permanent, and that Interior was one of the most affected agencies. Burrowers, however, were only a small percentage of the total number of people hired, and apparently were not particularly powerful at Interior.

The official line at the department is that the past is dead. Babbitt is a consensus builder - "a practitioner of government," as he puts it, "with an extraordinarily broad mandate from the President" - and he believes in allowing the bureaucracy to reveal its better nature. In such a place, permanent employees sympathetic to the appointees in power usually advance incrementally by letting their concerns show, or conceal them and wait out the current administration like blennies on the great sea fan of state, subject to electional ebb and flow. Interior is staffed by people with a love for land, or at least a scientific interest in it. The environmental tide is definitely in at Interior. But even with Watt gone, the mood is cautious; it would take me a while to realize why.

Babbitt spoke most enthusiastically about his proposed National Biological Survey, an inventory of species on public and private land, calling it "my first priority." The NBS is more emblematic of the Clinton/Babbitt regime than butting heads over resources because the survey can be viewed as cooperative and because it entails a popular political slogan, "biodiversity" - yin to the yang of cultural diversity and a general proposition that no reasonable person can oppose.

The task of determining America's species in the West was first undertaken in the great surveys following the Civil War, by people like Ferdinand Hayden, Clarence King, and John Wesley Powell. The country wanted to know what was "out there," and valuable specimens were collected, many of which ended up at the Smithsonian. But the biological survey faltered over the years, whereas the geological one prospered, driven by the vast mineral wealth it helped uncover. The U.S. Geological Survey could serve as the model for Babbitt's revamped biological survey, the signal difference being that whereas the former facilitated the opening of the West, the latter can only catalogue its demise.

The advantages of the biological survey are considerable and its scope an indication of Babbitt's conceptual abilities. It will take scientists from various bureaus within Interior and place them under one tarp. Because it will focus on the entire ecosystem, instead of on its components, heretofore unappreciated relationships among species can be studied and enlightened recommendations made. In turn these recommendations can lead to long-term decisions affecting conservation and the general ecological good. Traditionally, such scientific research has been vitiated in direct proportion to the number of warring agencies it must filter through; by concentrating and isolating the research, it would have greater practical force.

That is the argument. But irrespective of its merits, the National Biological Survey is an idea easily grasped in Washington. The new agency would shift around more than 1,700 Interior scientists and support staff, get funds, and acquire "enabling legislation," so often the imperial non sequitur. Its practical effects are years away.

A more pressing problem of species is that of salmon on the West Coast, an issue that promises to become the aquatic version of the spotted owl, though it is a lot more complicated and potentially more contentious. Dams on the Columbia River are eradicating the natural sockeye runs, some say methodically; other species face the same fate. The solution is readily available - altering the dams to allow the fish to pass - but it is expensive and would adversely affect power generation, barging, and some irrigation, all activities with dedicated lobbies.

This is a paradigmatic issue in an age that so values environmental paradigm. It involves twenty-three separate governmental jurisdictions, including such monoliths as the Department of Energy, the National Marine Fisheries Service within the Commerce Department, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, perennial bad boy of American rivers, and the Bureau of Reclamation and the Fish and Wildlife Service, both within Interior. Actions by some of these agencies suggest that the last descent of the Columbia by sockeye fry, and the extirpation of the fed's political problem, is eagerly anticipated.

Babbitt claimed to be powerless to help in the short run, an extraordinary admission. The offending dams are operated by the Army Corps of Engineers and produce energy for the DOE. Interior has sufficient water in its dams upstream to help the salmon get back to the ocean by raising water levels, and theoretically could provide it over the shrieks of upstream irrigators. "I could force the Bureau of Reclamation to release the water," Babbitt said, "but I would be checkmated by six or seven other agencies."

Babbitt's approach to the salmon and other problems is interagency cooperation. "That was the reason we got the timber plan," he said, referring to the compromise among environmentalists, the timber industry, and the regulators over the timber cut in the Northwest. "For ten years those agencies had been fighting, and we got them together. That's the model."

The salmon issue, unfortunately, doesn't seem to fit the model. Interior could champion the salmon, but that would involve a debilitating turf fight, salmon being the charge of the Commerce Department. I took the question to Babbitt's assistant secretary for Water and Science, Betsy Rieke. "Recovery is in the hands of Marine Resources," she said. "We're hopeful that they'll come up with the right provision to halt the dramatic decline of three species of salmon." She then echoed Babbitt: "We want to maintain a balance among the interests."

Most everyone agrees that some, thing can and should be done about salmon, but not that it will be done. Inherent in Babbitt's concept of "balance" is diminishment, and possibly extinction.

In the West, politics still rules. The salmon languishes in part because Tom Foley, speaker of the House of Representatives, doesn't want his district's power generation and downstream profits disturbed by a fish. Clinton needs Foley, as he needs Senator Baucus, who is chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works and the Subcommittee on International Trade, and a member of the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry committee, the Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Joint Committee on Taxation.

One of Babbitt's best appointments is a short, pudgy westerner who wears a bolo, Jim Baca. He heads the Bureau of Land Management, which administers the largest single piece of remnant lands - 270 million acres and 300 million acres of subsurface mineral rights - within Interior. Baca wants range and mining reform and, unlike some others in the administration, has been willing to stand up to western politicians making opportunistic forays into public lands. An example is that of the bombing range proposed for southwest Idaho's high-desert Owyhee County, at a time when the Soviet Union is panhandling and the U.S. military is in fiscal detox. Baca has reservations about creating a 200,000-acre Nintendo in an area that supports the largest herd of California bighorn sheep. High-tech dust-ups can be conducted at the supersonically nearby ranges already m existence, but Idaho's Cecil Andrus wants it, and Andrus is both a Democrat and a governor - a category particularly dear to the former governor of Arkansas.

Babbitt will influence the outcome of this and other squabbles, but the real decisions will be made by Clinton, as the tortuous path of the grazing-fees issue demonstrates. Clinton is not known to be partial to nature when its excrescences can be traded. Clinton defers to people, not to trees. Unlike Reagan, he doesn't view the latter as dangerous, merely mutable to our requirements. In this respect, he and his immediate predecessors in the nation's highest office have more in common than some of Clinton's supporters care to admit. The fact that people can be profoundly enhanced by aspects of nature that are not turned into product hasn't been fully appreciated in the White House since the days of Teddy Roosevelt.

Wandering the corridors of Interior, looking at all the photographs of the outdoors, I tried to imagine two things more antithetical than a tent and Bill Clinton. The West is so exterior and he relentlessly interior, his jogging demonstrations notwithstanding. He doesn't waste sentiment, or thought, on geography, and geography is what the West - and the country - is about. If Clinton understood this he would have vacationed in the Tetons, or in Hope, not on Martha's Vineyard. "The West" doesn't resonate in his internal policy discussions, nor do the states seem quite real and discrete to him. Instead, they are collections of congressmen and a governor who have, as Clinton has, peculiar problems related to "jobs," which are related to "votes." What Babbitt said of the typical Washington reporter applies equally to Clinton: "He doesn't know a cow pie from a piece of quartz."

Clinton's ability to identify with the political abstraction "biodiversity" led to his support for the National Biological Survey. Babbitt told me that he and Clinton had discussed biodiversity at length, and added - saliently, I thought - "The President called up one morning and said he had read a story about living on the land. He wanted to know how to reconcile that with the environmental concerns. He said, |Remember the little guy.'"

This is a noble, if naive, view, a bit retro-Rousseauian. Living on the land, meant in the traditional sense of occupying and transforming wilderness, is no longer possible in America on federal property. The President's question to Babbitt suggests that he has little idea of the difference between a farmer, rancher, miner, or lumberjack using his own land and those same people presuming upon the public domain. The public has a right to demand supervision and limits on the use of its own land.

Clinton's words reminded me of something Watt had said all those years before, about using federal resources to "help another person get a job, feed his family ... You might have provided shelter, so somebody can live out of the

blizzards of Wyoming." Another proposition no reasonable person can oppose, and therefore politically potent. Yet for a century and a half the little guy has provided the big guy with the moral justification for bonanza and despoliation. The uncomfortable truth is that during that time many Americans, little and big, have built livelihoods and fortunes using commodities that do not belong to them.

The biological survey could very well miss some animals and plants because those species will disappear before the inventory gets under way. This is because laws and regulations protecting them are not enforced. Trespassing dirt-bikers are likely to run over the desert tortoise and other species while they are under the microscope. Throughout Interior and Forest Service lands, corporations and the little guy are stealing timber, graze, water, and stone, dumping, stripping, digging up living things, shooting them, squatting, fouling stream beds, misreading meters on oil and gas wells, overcharging government for services not performed, growing dope, and smuggling Anasazi artifacts. No one in authority even pretends to be in control of this grubby aspect of land management.

Even westerners are beginning to complain. They are speaking out against antiquarian irrationalities like "First in time, first in right," the basis of western water law, and wondering aloud why the right to graze cattle on land you don't own can be passed along to your children. Increasingly, western delegations in Washington do not speak for the majority of their constituents, and western senators re, veal that they know less about the issues at home than do outsiders.

The apportioning of resources remains so illogical in terms of today's realities - political ones excepted - that most Americans, wherever they live, are shocked to learn of them. While the argument over grazing fees progressed at Interior, for instance, a mining company, American Barrick - it is Canadian-owned - was in the process of extracting some $10 billion worth of gold from the great American interior, on land American Barrick will probably be able to acquire for the grand sum of $10,000. Royalties are not paid on hard-rock minerals, a favor to the mining companies, domestic and foreign. Though Babbitt has been holding up the process, it's a battle one high-ranking interior official said he's bound to lose. Ten thousand dollars in exchange for $10 billion worth of assets that belong to all Americans would seem to transcend even the permanent government's ideas of acceptable ineptitude and venality in the body - Congress - that continues to defend the General Mining Law of 1872.

One of the people Babbitt listens to closely at Interior is George Frampton, assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. Frampton mastered the give-and-take of Washington consensus while serving as president of the Wilderness Society, which today reflects the same K Street sheen as other successful lobbies around town; he is not what the indigenous environmental hard core call "a tennis shoe environmentalist." "He's never worked these issues on the street," says one who has.

Frampton was just back from Alaska when I met with him, and on his way to the Everglades. He evinced all the bonhomie of a vacuum-cleaner salesman in a dust storm: such a mess, so much opportunity. The timber summit, from his viewpoint, had been a victory for "balance," whereas environmentalists outside Washington considered it a cave-in by the environmental establishment to a government bent on jobs and votes. Gains from the environmentalists' perspective were at that moment being further eroded by Interior appointees eager to please the White House. Within days the Clinton Administration would threaten to go to Congress to obtain a still-larger timber cut, and a member of Frampton's own Wilderness Society would characterize Interior as "staff running amok ... We have to question their sincerity."

I asked Frampton if he thought salmon and hydropower could receive the same attention at the White House that the spotted owl and timber received. "The President has had his brush with Northwest resources," Frampton said; apparently grazing fees were not a test case after all.

Frampton moved on to talk about departmental affairs. Any disgruntled Republican leftovers at Interior, he said, would be disposed of through attrition and replaced by younger personnel. "The department will be a reflection of what has happened at the White House. That will be our legacy - the next round of managers."

That, of course, was Watt's aim: to recast the bureaucracy. This time, anomalies were to be erased by the baby boom, not by transfers, firings, or ideological tirades. We were talking evolution. Meanwhile Babbitt and his appointees have their mandate to inventory our diminishing species, remember the little guy, and help get Clinton re-elected.
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Title Annotation:Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt
Author:Conaway, James
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Date:Dec 1, 1993
Words:4086
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