May 25, 2008

Environment a contradiction for Babbitt

Ex-governor's critics question his motives

by Dennis Wagner
The Arizona Republic

Jack Kurtz/The Arizona Republic
Former Governor, Secretary of the Interior and Democratic Presidential candidate Bruce Babbitt hikes the trails in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve.

In nearly 40 years of public service, Bruce Babbitt developed a reputation for defending endangered species, trying to undam rivers and setting aside wilderness areas.

But the onetime Arizona governor and former Interior secretary also has worked as a lobbyist for developers, a lawyer for industry and a speculator in public lands.

Today, though Babbitt is chairman of the World Wildlife Fund, some environmental groups paint him in a different hue of green - the color of money.

The turncoat criticism is so harsh and passionate that Northern Arizona University several months ago erased Babbitt's name from a series of conservation seminars because of opposition from conservation groups.

In some ways, the controversy over Babbitt's environmental record is in sync with paradoxes that have defined much of his storied career.

He grew up in one of Arizona's most prominent ranching families but never rode the range. He majored in geology yet wound up with a Harvard law degree. He is painfully shy as a public figure, with a Jimmy Stewart stammer, yet ran for president.

In a book on Arizona politicians, University of Arizona Professor James W. Johnson characterizes Babbitt as "the perfect combination of Eastern slick and Western hick."

Yet the seeming contradictions of his ecological niche are the most perplexing. How does someone write a book on the importance of preserving open spaces yet advocate housing tracts on pristine California coastal properties where endangered critters live?

Why would Babbitt serve as legal counsel for a ski resort that wanted to spray man-made snow on the San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff despite objections from Native Americans? Years ago, he had joined tribal members in proclaiming the mountains sacred.

"I still don't understand it," said Sandy Bahr, a Sierra Club Southwest representative. "We and the tribes were all really disappointed . . . a sense of betrayal."

Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Lands Project, said as Interior secretary, Babbitt oversaw enormous trades of federal property in the name of conservation - deals that Blaeloch describes as public rip-offs.

The sharpest criticism comes from muckraking journalists Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, who wrote in an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times: "No better case for cynicism about politics is currently available than the career of Bruce Babbitt."

Babbitt, 69, shrugs off the aspersions as an inevitable part of public life.

"There are going to be critics, and you just can't be spooked by it," he said, sipping coffee after a hike at Piestewa Peak on a visit to the Valley from his Washington, D.C., base.

"I've always had my differences with the orthodox environmental community, which is premised on a view that we are opposed to all development. I've never been in that sphere. I've always been into managed development.

"People want to grab me and say, 'Hey, you're an environmentalist. You're one of us, 100 percent.' Never have been, never will be."

Arizona roots

Reared in Flagstaff, Babbitt was heir to an empire of ranches, trading posts and mining claims. The Babbitt name is a touchstone of Arizona history, tracing back to five Babbitt brothers and their enterprises in the late 19th century. For Bruce Babbitt, a relative of one of the brothers, wilderness was in his blood. He roamed Arizona's forests and deserts to hunt, fish and explore, fascinated with the science and history.

"My commitment to the outdoors was never about ranching," he said. "It was just an instinctive attachment to the landscape."

Babbitt settled on a career in geology, earned his degree at Notre Dame and then accepted a Marshall Scholarship to the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England.

While working as an intern with a petroleum company in the Andes, Babbitt said, he became more interested in working with the poor than looking for oil. In the mid-1960s, he entered Harvard Law School and wound up marching with civil-rights demonstrators in the South. After graduation, he spent two years doing anti-poverty work with Volunteers in Service to America.

Babbitt said he realized that politics, even more than law, offered remedies for social injustice. He returned to Phoenix and went to work as a lawyer, became politically active and was elected attorney general in 1974 at age 36.

Four years later, after the death of Gov. Wesley Bolin, Babbitt became governor by succession.

He won two subsequent elections, and supporters reel off a list of accomplishments that include creation of the state's Department of Environmental Quality and signing America's first groundwater protection law.

Babbitt said the latter act forever identified him as a conservationist even though his motive, in part, was to ensure that future generations could grow.

"We can easily look at the groundwater code and say it's a developer law," he said. "I never really thought of myself as an environmentalist until my governor years, when people started giving me awards."

Eye on the White House

From his office at the state Capitol, Babbitt gained national attention as co-founder of the Democratic Leadership Council and chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

The New York Times pointed to him as an emerging leader in "neo-liberalism," which embraced traditional Democratic goals of social justice and civil rights along with conservative limitations on government size.

Babbitt launched a presidential campaign in 1987 and toured the nation. But he never caught on with voters. (His favorite quip: "We were in it right up to the beginning.")

In 1994, when Babbitt was appointed by President Clinton to head the Interior Department, environmental leaders were elated. Sierra Club Southwest spokesman Rob Smith called the selection "very good news for the environment."

Babbitt announced that his theme would be restoration of public lands so "we can create, or re-create, a landscape that was seen by Lewis and Clark, Kit Carson and our forebears." He traveled the nation calling for dams to be torn down. He introduced a forest protection philosophy that, for the first time, recognized wildfire as a natural part of healthy ecosystems. He defended the Endangered Species Act from political attacks and, in his own words, "saved it from extinction."

Industry groups and conservatives assailed Babbitt as a "green barbarian," decrying his efforts to increase mine royalties and grazing fees on public lands.

At the same time, some environmentalists began criticizing federal-land swaps supported by Babbitt that they alleged gave sweetheart terms to developers.

Babbitt said he was working for citizens, not special interests, but got caught in a crossfire between extremists. The federal exchanges ensured protection for wilderness areas, he said, while providing industries with lands for economic development that provided jobs and resources.

He said he learned that environmental purists inevitably fail because they push too far, undermining economic growth and alienating the public. "Green dogma is a ticket to oblivion," he said.

Fred DuVal, a friend for 25 years who served with Babbitt on political campaigns and at Interior, said eco-critics make DuVal heartsick because they are so far off base. Babbitt achieved conservation while others whined or pontificated, but he is so modest he refused to allow any monument to be named for him, Duval said. "It frustrates me because his accomplishments have eroded from public memory so quickly, and they are so profound," he added.

During eight years at the Interior Department, DuVal said, Babbitt helped set aside more wilderness than ever before in U.S. history. He wielded the Endangered Species Act to block damaging development. He worked to create nearly 10 million acres of new national monuments, five in Arizona. He also returned wolves to Yellowstone National Park and shepherded laws protecting the Everglades and other endangered treasures.

"He's certainly an environmentalist," said Mike Gauldin, former spokesman at the Interior Department. "But he's also had to learn how to get things done . . . . Sometimes that involves making concessions around the edges."

Snow Bowl saga

As the Clinton administration was closing, Babbitt received a prestigious national award for creating the National Landscape Conservation System and initiating "a new direction in American conservation history."

Then he joined Latham & Watkins, a Beltway law firm with a Darth Vader reputation among environmentalists. Within weeks, Babbitt was supporting plans for a nuclear-waste dump in Nevada and working with Arizona developers on land-swap deals.

But the Snow Bowl episode is what really crushed conservationists. While heading the Interior Department in 2000, Babbitt had joined Native Americans and conservation groups, including the Sierra Club, in a successful campaign to shut down pumice mining on the alpine peaks overlooking his hometown.

"This mountain is sacred in my religion," Babbitt declared at the time. "The first Franciscan missionaries saw this mountain from the Hopi mesas and named it after the founder of their order, after Saint Francis, who is the patron saint of ecology. What I see here today . . . is purely and simply a sacrilege."

Five years later, Babbitt was in federal court defending the ski resort's plan to cut down trees and spray the slopes with frozen, treated wastewater. Although Babbitt is no longer involved, an opposition Web site still shows his double image with a caption that calls him "the two-faced politician."

Babbitt said he joined Latham & Watkins to earn a living and represented only clients or causes he respected. He denied any betrayal. He defended snowmaking on an existing recreation site in the national forest as an "appropriate use" and said treated wastewater would not desecrate the holy mountain.

But resentment in his hometown remains palpable: This spring, a public furor erupted at Northern Arizona University when plans were announced to offer a "Bruce Babbitt Lecture Series on Western Conservation." Protests ended when the former governor's name was dropped from the title.

An obscure bird

Babbitt acknowledged shifting his position on at least one other issue, leading to accusations of hypocrisy.

While at the Interior Department, he listed the California gnatcatcher as a threatened species and used it to establish a building moratorium across much of Southern California's coast.

After leaving office, however, Babbitt went to work for several companies planning megadevelopments in the area. One of them, Washington Mutual, came up with a $2 billion housing project at Ahmanson Ranch in Ventura County.

Babbitt declared the design a "national model of smart, innovative and environmentally responsible development." He also complained that the Endangered Species Act was too rigid and should be watered down.

Local activist Chad Griffin was so outraged that he told reporters, "Bruce Babbitt still sees green; it's just a different shade of green than he saw as Interior secretary."

Asked to explain, Babbitt said he came to believe that using an obscure subspecies to stop housing developments from Los Angeles to San Diego was a tactical error. Congress would have been so upset and under so much pressure that the Endangered Species Act would have been overturned, he said.

As it turned out, Babbitt said, Ahmanson Ranch had a classic win-win outcome: Outrage over the project prompted California to buy the property, so Washington Mutual made a profit and the public got a new state park.

Babbitt today

Today, Babbitt travels the globe as unpaid chairman for the World Wildlife Fund, the largest conservation organization in the world.

He no longer practices law or works as a lobbyist. He does some consulting.

He visits universities giving speeches about the threat of global warming. He calls for the removal of salmon-killing dams on the Snake River in Washington state. He goes before Congress seeking money for wildlife refuges.

He also was involved in a deal to give the National Park Service a private ranch next to Petrified Forest in return for developable federal land near Buckeye. Asked if the objective was to make money or protect nature, Babbitt shrugged. "Clearly, it is both."

More than anything, Babbitt said, he remains on a mission to press for land-use planning that recognizes the importance of open spaces, especially in Arizona. He cited Tucson as a limited success, metro Phoenix as a sprawling failure.

Meanwhile, Babbitt said he doesn't fret about a legacy.

"There's no need to do a lot of hand-wringing about that," he said. "In the sweep of time, the facts speak for themselves."