Public Land Policy: Babbitt Is Finding The Balance

It's definitely not business as usual on the nation's public lands. In a Mar. 16 interview with BUSINESS WEEK, Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt outlined his plan for managing his department's land, a plan that also represents the Administration's goals for the 500 million acres of government-owned property. It will, he says, "strike a balance between resource production and environmental protection," after years of resource exploitation.

In fact, the plan overturns a legacy of what critics contend is misguided management (table). Babbitt intends to sharply cut subsidies for grazing, logging, mining, and water use, while modestly lifting recreation fees. Then he wants to adopt ecosystems management, which aims to preserve habitats to prevent the decline of species and avoid conflicts between development and conservation. When nature meets development head-on, he says, protecting habitat and wildlife will win.

FEE HIKES. Yes, these proposals would impose added costs to industry and, short-term, curtail some development. But in the long run, they offer a chance to improve the health of public lands and provide reliable harvests of renewable resources. They may avoid disruptive conflicts such as the one over the endangered Northern Spotted Owl. And given the budget deficit, why should taxpayers subsidize those who use public lands?

Change won't come easily. Since the 19th century, the government has undercharged users who take commodities from public lands. Recently, recreational demands on public lands have soared. Yet in 1990, the four major land-management agencies spent $4.6 billion but brought in only $1.65 billion, according to the Wilderness Society, an environmental group. As a result, some national parks suffer from overcrowding and pollution. Others endure deteriorating infrastructures and declining wildlife.

Eliminating what amounts to subsidies is essential. The Administration would phase them out in a plan it says would bring in $1 billion over five years, much of it for improving infrastructure and restoring habitats. Commercial users, however, bear the brunt of the increases, while recreational users, who pay next to nothing, escape with tiny hikes. That's a missed opportunity: Visitor fees cover just 7% of operating costs for the national parks, making them a good target for hikes.

Although ecosystems management shows promise for improving habitats, initially officials are likely to lower timber harvests and reduce grazing. The Forest Service, which adopted the approach last year, says it will slash clear-cutting on its 191 million acres by 70% from 1988 levels. Ecosystems management, which seeks to improve the condition of key natural elements, species, and processes in a habitat, will mean big changes in logging operations. That means more selective cutting, with loggers often taking smaller trees or different mixes of timber. In the long run, land managers say it should be possible to boost the productivity of grazing lands and extend logging to areas now closed to it.

UNTRAMMELED. Babbitt's plans are sound in theory. In practice, they face economic, political, and scientific difficulties. Their effectiveness depends on still unclear implementation details. Nevertheless, some of the proposals are likely to fly. Babbitt predicts Congress will move to end mining subsidies this year. Even commercial users who oppose fee hikes admit Babbitt's philosophy is in line with public wishes.

Babbitt will find out just how closely in line on Apr. 2, when the Clinton Administration convenes the Forest Summit in Portland, Ore. "We will find a correct balance between timber harvest and the integrity of the ecosystem," he says. It's none too soon. Public lands are among the last untrammeled areas in a nation that can't afford to squander resources, habitat, or jobs.

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