Babbitt faults Norton policies - Says more areas 'cry for protection'

By Stuart Leavenworth --
Sacramento Bee Staff Writer

July 22, 2003

For the first time since leaving office, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is gingerly criticizing his successor, Gale Norton, for limiting protections on millions of acres of public lands across the West.

In an interview with The Bee on Monday, Babbitt faulted Norton for halting studies of potential wilderness on lands administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management, a decision that could affect the Headwaters Forest and several other BLM properties in California.

"It is an unfortunate decision," said Babbitt. The new policy, he said, undercuts efforts to protect and showcase "a fabulous inventory of public lands that have never gotten the attention they deserve."

Bush administration officials say they are merely following the law by leaving it to Congress to designate new wilderness. The Interior Department will continue to protect sensitive lands, said spokesman Mark Pfeifle, even if it doesn't designate new lands as "wilderness study areas."

But without such reviews, Babbitt and others say, the federal government will be restricted in managing new national monuments and protecting public lands from unsuitable oil drilling, mining and grazing.

"It is not a particularly optimistic time," said Babbitt, a former Arizona governor who headed Interior during the Clinton administration. "Hopefully we will see some renewal of the environmental movement, but it has to come from the grass roots. It will not come from the top."

Although he was somewhat guarded in his comments, Babbitt's criticisms are his first of Norton's policies since he left office and returned to consulting and legal work.

During those three years, Norton and the new administration have reversed many of Babbitt's policies and generally pushed for more resource extraction on public lands. All that time, Babbitt has followed established decorum and declined to comment publicly on his successor's policies.

In recent months, however, Babbitt says he's becoming increasingly concerned over the fate of the National Landscape Conservation System, an initiative he launched to inventory and protect components of the Bureau of Land Management.

Across the West, BLM manages 262 million acres of public land, including the King Range on the North Coast and giant trees outside of Sequoia National Park. Despite those assets, BLM has tended to be a forgotten stepchild in Interior, said Babbitt. "It was always thought of as the Bureau of Livestock and Mining," he said.

In April, Norton quietly settled a lawsuit with Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt of Utah that fueled some of Babbitt's concerns.

The settlement reversed a Clinton-era policy that provided interim wilderness status to 2.6 million acres of BLM land in Utah. It also prohibited Interior from establishing any new wilderness study areas -- which effectively treat land like wilderness, meaning no mining, dams, roads or mechanized recreation.

Kit Kimball, director of external affairs for Interior, said the previous administration was effectively managing areas as wilderness without congressional approval. "We don't have the authority to do that," she said.

Interior officials also say that, contrary to what some have claimed, the Bush administration's policy doesn't prevent BLM from studying areas for wilderness or even recommending that Congress consider them for protection.

"We will continue to manage those areas, and if redwoods need protection, we will go ahead and do so," said Kimball.

California officials say those words are a smokescreen. Resources Secretary Mary Nichols said the policy prevents permanent protections for any BLM lands not designated "wilderness study areas" by Congress prior to 1993.

This includes parts of the ancient Humboldt County redwoods in the Headwaters Forest, purchased in 1999 with $480 million in federal funds. She said the policy marks "a significant departure" from policies of every president since Jimmy Carter.

Asked about the scope of Norton's policies, Babbitt demurred and declined to be lured into a debate.

He said there are still opportunities to protect BLM lands through plans the agency is formulating for new national monuments. He also noted that Congress has already approved 17 million acres of land as wilderness study areas that are untouched by the new policy, although many of those areas are outside of California.

"There are splendid areas that cry out for protection, in Hawaii, Oregon, Idaho, the Vermillion basin in Colorado," said Babbitt. "I think it's time to set goals for expansion and completion of the system."


Letter to the Editor re: the above article:

Referencing your article, dated July 22, 2003:

Why was no mention made of the Babbitt-owned MINES in Arizona and all the OSHA and EPA violations that no one dares do anything about, for fear of riling Mr. Babbitt?

Bruce Babbitt's closet contains many skeletons. His mines continue to operate -- to this day -- in violation of rules that he was only too quick to hold others accountable for. His rhapsodizing of 'public' lands -- and his continued intent to close vast areas of America to most humans, also known as The Wildlands Project -- does not in any way change his track record, Stuart.

Painting him as demurring is painting an inaccurate picture.

I would like to hear from you on this, please!

Julie Smithson


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