Rough Ride For An Ex Cowboy

Bruce Babbitt is on familiar turf, meeting with ranchers, environmentalists, and local officials at Southern Utah University in Cedar City. But the reception for the Interior Secretary is hardly homey. Speaking for many ranchers who run cattle on federal land, Hardy Redd rips into Babbitt's plan to more than double grazing fees. "You don't understand how deeply these issues are felt in the West," Redd says.

Babbitt, the son of ranchers, knows all too well. He rode into Washington with Bill Clinton, promising to bring environmental consciousness to the Interior Dept.'s management of 442 million public acres. A year later, he's bloodied. His plans for reform have run into political barricades. His trade-offs with business have angered environmentalists. The President has abandoned him at crucial moments. And on Feb. 3, Babbitt was humiliated when pressure from Western Democrats forced him to fire Jim Baca, the pro-environment director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Babbitt's troubles aren't surprising. For its 145 years, Interior has mainly sold off public resources to private interests. But Babbitt pledged "a new American land ethic" at the $7.5 billion, 75,000-employee agency. He hoped to protect America's oil, minerals, timber, and wildlife while heading off what he calls "train wrecks": litigious battles pitting resources against jobs. His goal was to win more protection for public lands and higher resource fees--in return for relaxing endangered-species laws to allow more development on private property.

BILL'S TRUST. Politics make that a tall order. The 11 states where Uncle Sam is the major landowner account for nearly a quarter of the Senate's votes. Clinton did better there than any other recent Democrat and wants to win the West again in 1996. He likes his old pal from the National Governors' Assn. and the Democratic Leadership Council. "[Vice-President Al] Gore and Babbitt are the ones Clinton trusts when it comes to the environment," says a White House official. But Clinton sacrificed Interior's agenda to corral Western votes on the budget and free trade--raising questions about his environmental commitment.

Against these realities, Babbitt pits logic and economics. Interior, which controls 66% of public lands, has long sold rights to them at a bargain: On average, ranchers pay only one-fifth as much to run cattle on public range as on private land. And the government takes a bath: Last year, it cost $16.6 billion to manage resources the General Accounting Office says had yielded just $6.9 billion in revenues the previous year. Worse, Interior says it will cost $11 billion to clean up abandoned metal mines that threaten groundwater, mainly in the West. And it says 51% of federal range is in poor or fair condition. "It's unreasonable to tell the American people that everyone should pay their fair share--except miners, timber companies, ranchers, and water users," Babbitt says.

He blames himself for the blunders in his first year. In August, he enraged Western senators--many of them Democrats--with a surprise announcement of the plan to raise grazing fees. "He thought he could come up here and work his charm," scoffs one Senate staffer. Instead, a bipartisan Senate coalition threatened to kill Interior's 1994 appropriations. Babbitt backed down.

Nor has he been able to settle key land-use disputes with industry. In 1988, for instance, the Justice Dept. sued Florida for failing to protect Everglades National Park from fertilizer-laden water pumped south by growers. To reach an agreement, Babbitt convened talks in July, but they collapsed in December. He has also alienated environmentalists, who lobbied for his appointment, by cutting deals with property owners. Georgia-Pacific Corp., for example, got permission to log 4.2 million acres in nine Southeastern states in exchange for a handshake promise to protect the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.

Babbitt's firing of the BLM head--on grounds of conflicting management styles--was far more damaging. Unlike his predecessors, Baca refused to grant exceptions or waive rules for special interests. Enraged, Western officials, espec- ially Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus, who was Jimmy Carter's Interior Secretary, demanded Baca's hide. Environmentalists objected, but Babbitt did the deed. "There's a feeling that Babbitt and the Administration aren't as committed to reform as they said they were," says Lynn Greenwalt, vice-president of the National Wildlife Federation. Baca is blunter: "You have to stand up for principles under pressure. That's the difference between us."

Those are painful words for Babbitt, 55, who cut off ties to his own ranching heritage to come to Washington. To take his $148,400 job, he had to sell his interest in two Arizona-based family businesses, COBar Livestock Co. and Babbitt Brothers Trading Co., which had given him income of more than $200,000 a year. Reared near Flagstaff, he rode a horse almost as soon as he could walk and toted a gun before he got his driver's license. "Anything that moved and wasn't a cow, you shot," he says.

LIVE RATTLER. He left Arizona in 1956 for the University of Notre Dame, where gradually his cowboy outlook changed, although even he isn't sure why. "The first time I walked away from a rattlesnake without killing it, I must have been about 20," he says. He went home after Harvard Law School in 1965 and was elected attorney general in 1974. When Governor Wesley Bolin died in 1978, Babbitt, Arizona's next-highest elected official, moved into the statehouse--at 39.

Babbitt soon found compromise the best way to achieve conservation goals. In a 1979 battle over water, Arizona's scarcest resource, he struck a deal that established the state's first groundwater restrictions. "That taught me the possibility of...consensus and trade-offs," he says. After a 1988 Presidential bid, he practiced law and became president of the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group.

Babbitt hasn't given up on grazing reform. In early March, Interior will propose higher fees and such changes as fencing riverbanks to combat erosion. It may also push for rules to halt water pollution from abandoned mines. To prepare for one last try, Babbitt has spent three months roaming the West, trying to drum up support for his plan. It's a hard sell in Utah, where 64% of the state's 52 million acres are federally owned. And as long as it's tough there, it will be in Washington, too.


-- He allowed California developers to build on part of the habitat of the threatened California gnatcatcher--in exchange for extra protection elsewhere

-- He permitted Georgia Pacific Corp. and International Paper Co. to open land for logging in the South, provided that they protected rare woodpeckers and salamanders


-- Two efforts to raise fees for grazing on public lands were derailed by Western opposition

-- Western senators blocked efforts to impose royalties on hard-rock mining on federal lands


-- A compromise to protect the habitat of the Northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest timberland awaits court approval

-- A deal to protect the Florida Everglades from agricultural runoff broke down, but talks continue

-- A census of plant and animal species was set up without congressional approval, but next year's funding has yet to be approved

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