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An Old Conservationist Reawakens An Old Conservationist Reawakens

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An Old Conservationist Reawakens

Babbitt: Delivers a scolding on the outdoors.(Courtesy National Press Club/Sam Hurd)

photo of Christopher Snow Hopkins
June 9, 2011

A ghost of the Clinton administration has come out of the woodwork to rebuke President Obama for his timidity on conservation.

“If it continues, [the administration’s] silence is going to yield some very bitter fruit,” former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt told a gathering of reporters on Wednesday—the 105th birthday of the 1906 American Antiquities Act. “We’re almost three years into this administration, and we haven’t heard a strong conservation voice.”

Babbitt’s apostasy—convening a press conference to admonish a president of his own party—is striking because he has always been a loyal Democrat.


The Flagstaff, Ariz., native holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame, a master’s in geophysics from the University of Newcastle in England, and a law degree from Harvard University. Now 72, he started out working at the Justice Department but returned to Arizona in 1967 to practice at a law firm in Phoenix. He was elected the state’s attorney general in 1974, and four years later he won the first of his two terms as governor. Environmental controls and water management were signature issues of his administration, along with education and child-welfare programs.

A founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council, Babbitt was chairman of the Democratic Governors Association in 1985. After an abortive presidential run in 1988, he became the 47th Interior secretary in 1993. (President Clinton also considered him as a possible successor to Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun.)

In his first year at Interior, Babbitt locked horns with Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill by pushing to protect public lands with new management controls and increased grazing fees. The bill was filibustered in the Senate.

Recognizing that the Obama administration is hampered by a Republican majority in the House, Babbitt is urging him to utilize the Antiquities Act, which empowers the president to designate national monuments without congressional approval. “The best way to defend the Antiquities Act is for the president to use it,” Babbitt said.

But Obama has not “voiced his willingness” to step into the breach, he contended.

Babbitt characterized Obama’s reticence as “appeasement” and recalled an episode in 1995 when Clinton capitulated to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. “Pressured by the [timber] industry,” Clinton signed a spending bill with a dubious add-on: the so-called salvage logging rider that accelerated removal of dead or dying trees in national forests. Or so it was advertised; in fact, the rider superseded environmental regulations protecting the northern spotted owl and other vulnerable species. “It was a big mistake,” Babbitt said. “It set off a prolonged and destructive episode.”

Babbitt is convinced that a storm is gathering on Capitol Hill. “It’s now been more than 10 years since I left public office,” he said. “I’m returning to the public stage today because this Congress … has simply declared war on our land, water, and natural resources.”

As evidence of this, Babbitt cited three riders in April’s continuing budget resolution: one removing wolves in Idaho and Montana from the endangered species list; one ending “catch shares,” a federal program aimed at restoring depleted ocean fisheries; and one enjoining Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to withdraw an order advising the Bureau of Land Management to identify public lands with wilderness value.

In Babbitt’s view, these riders constitute an insidious threat to the conservation movement. “The real reason I’m here is because this pattern of proposals is emerging quietly,” he said. “I think the sponsors of these amendments are making the assumption that … they can do this in the dark.”

Today, Babbitt is a practicing lawyer and director emeritus of the World Wildlife Fund.

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