Babbitt: Wants wilderness as highest priority public forests, made off-limits to grazing and multiple-use


By SHERRY DEVLIN of the Missoulian

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt called for the overhaul of America's grazing, mining and land-use laws

"National forests are not about multiple use," he said. "They are about the dominant public use. The community has the first priority for wilderness..." -Bruce Babbitt

Thursday, saying it is time to make preservation the dominant use of the public forests, waters and wildlife.

"Isn't it time to reframe the debate?" Babbitt asked a near-capacity crowd of 500 at the opening session of the University of Montana's 26th annual Public Land Law Conference. "These laws served their time, but that time has passed. Now we need to save a share of these resources for creation."

Interior secretary for eight years during the Clinton administration, Babbitt said the laws designed and adopted during the 1800s to stimulate settlement of the West are no longer acceptable. Nor is the environmental damage brought about by that development.

Instead, he called for a "conservation-based community commons," where the conservation value of public resources is the first and presumptive use of the land, and extractive uses - grazing, mining and logging - are subordinate.

The West was settled on the premise that every acre of public land "was meant for the smiling face of a heifer or an Angus cow," said Babbitt, a former governor of Arizona and the product of a ranching family. That premise, in fact, was enshrined in the Taylor Grazing Act: "that public lands must be available and must be grazed."

As Interior secretary, Babbitt said, he had occasion to see the impacts of grazing on riparian areas along the Missouri River in Montana and in the high desert of his home state. The Missouri's cottonwood forests are disappearing, along with its muddy banks, he said. "The riparian corridor is grazed out."

In the desert, the damage is even more severe, Babbitt said. "I am now convinced that livestock do not belong in arid deserts. If it gets less than 10 inches of rainfall, cattle do not belong there.

"I am here to say the presumption that grazing is the dominant use of our public lands is the artifact of a distant past and must be replaced."

So, too, must the Mining Law of 1872 be rewritten, in Babbitt's estimation. At its adoption, the law was intended to reward "anyone willing to risk their security and make the trek into the Rocky Mountains."

"You had automatic entitlement to the mineral deposits you found," he said. "In the 21st century, though, shouldn't there be some limits? Isn't there higher value in the land itself?"

During his tenure in the Interior Department, Babbitt made Montana's Sweetgrass Hills off-limits to cyanide heap leach miners, speculators who hoped to use the 1872 law to their advantage. Heap-leach mining, he said, is "probably always going to lose any analysis of the public interest because the disturbance of the land is out of proportion to any conceivable benefit."

And so, too, is logging no longer the appropriate dominant use of the national forests, Babbitt told his audience, which included the Forest Service's regional forester and the supervisor of the Lolo National Forest.

"The Forest Service was set up on the same model - that the forests were meant to be cut," he said. "The Forest Service came up with a concept called multiple use to justify the logging of any landscape."

"Be our guest," came Babbitt's parody. "Take an acre. A homestead. Bring in the loggers. Graze your sheep. Maybe the miners can work around the trees. Don't you see the problem? The land has limits. We have to set priorities."

The old Forest Service slogan "Land of Many Uses" was actually "Land of Too Many Uses," the former secretary said. "Where does the public interest lie? I say it lies in the beauty of these grand landscapes, and in the ecological and biological diversity of the land."

The debate over old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest didn't even start until 90 percent of those forests were gone, Babbitt said. "Can't we preserve the remaining 10 percent? If we don't, we are unraveling the very fabric of our forests."

"National forests are not about multiple use," he said. "They are about the dominant public use. The community has the first priority for wilderness, for water, for the integrity of these beautiful forests. If we could protect the remaining old-growth forests, it would be a start toward protecting the integrity of creation."

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at


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