Exit Interview: Bruce Babbitt
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RAY SUAREZ: President Clinton’s land conservation action today is just the latest in a series of efforts to put public lands off-limits from development. His order would set aside nearly a third of national forest lands, prohibiting road building and logging. In its eight years, the Clinton administration has taken actions impacting millions of acres of federal land, including the designation of a dozen national monuments. One of the people who’s led that effort is Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Yesterday, he talked with Gwen Ifill in the first of a series of conversations we’re conducting with some of the outgoing members of the Clinton administration.
GWEN IFILL: Welcome, Secretary Babbitt.
BRUCE BABBITT: Gwen, it’s a pleasure.
GWEN IFILL: In the eight years that you served as Interior Secretary, what would you say you were most proud of?
BRUCE BABBITT: Well, I think breathing life into the Endangered Species Act, taking those wolves back into Yellowstone, restoring the salmon in the rivers of the Pacific Northwest. I’d say that’s at the top. Protecting all this land, working with the President to establish all these monuments, to, you know… I think the President has a land protection record that’s second to no one in this century, maybe Teddy Roosevelt. But that’s all been a wonderful experience.
GWEN IFILL: It’s also an experience that you kind of jump-started that effort to have the President establish this land’s legacy, didn’t you?
BRUCE BABBITT: Oh, yeah, sure. I grew up in the West, grew up on the land, was educated as a geologist. And I came here with a vision of what it is we ought to be doing. We had kind of a rocky start, but I spent a lot of time working with the President and handing him statistics and showing him what we were doing as we went along and kind of saying to him, you know, this is really important. This isn’t just about today, this about generations to come. And you’ve got a chance to be the greatest conservation President since Theodore Roosevelt, and I think he’s done it.
GWEN IFILL: You alluded to the rocky start. What in this eight years have you regretted the most?
BRUCE BABBITT: Oh, gosh.
GWEN IFILL: Just pick one.
BRUCE BABBITT: I wish that we could have taken all of the stuff we’ve done with the Endangered Species Act– the wolves in Yellowstone or the salmon back in the rivers, the bald eagles– all of the work that we’ve done– the land we protected– and got the Endangered Species Act rewritten and reauthorized in the Congress. That was a big failure last year. But I think we’ve laid the groundwork, and I think it will inevitably happen.
GWEN IFILL: You talk about growing up and being very appreciative of the environment, growing up in the West. As you know, you have your critics who think that you declared war on the West rather than saving the West, as i’m sure you would like to describe it. How did you find a way to find a middle ground in all that dispute?
BRUCE BABBITT: Well, what I tried to do is simply to get out on the land. And when I came to Washington, I think one of the mistakes we made early on was kind of having an ideological dispute up in the Congress. We would often talk abstractions about is there too much public land, is there not too much public land? Should we have stricter laws about mining and logging or shouldn’t we? And it got very polarized and very abstract. What I finally did in 1995 was I said, I’m going to get out of this town and I’m going to go out West. And if we’re going to talk about a particular thing, we’re going to get out on the landscape and we’re going to talk about it right out there on the rim of the Grand Canyon. I’m going to go out and get everybody together and say I think we ought to protect this for generations to come. Now, let’s get down to work and walk the land and talk about the conflicts and get everybody involved. And I think that was the real turning point.
GWEN IFILL: But you made enemies along the way, the property owners.
BRUCE BABBITT: A fair amount of conflict, yeah, sure, sure. There’s a basic kind of tension here. It’s between those who say, I’d like to clear cut this forest and reduce it to saw timber because that’s an economically productive thing for me to do. My job is to look at the national patrimony, 280 million American people and their descendants and generations to come and say, this is a part of our natural heritage. We have to preserve it and use it sustainably. And the short-term use of resources at the destruction of the long-term heritage of this country is not a policy that we can pursue. It sets up some tension. There’s no question about it.
GWEN IFILL: As a result, has the Center of Environmental Policy in the United States changed in a way that is sustainable over the next administration?
BRUCE BABBITT: Oh, I think it really has. Let me give you just one or two examples. I think that the early fights over the clear-cutting of those great old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest was really an important fight because they were saying out there, “we’ve got to cut these forests down, otherwise the economy will collapse.” Here we are eight years later. We’ve set aside tens of millions of acres of those northwestern forests for perpetuity. The unemployment rate has gone not up, but down. The economy has gone up. The Northwest is in better shape than it was eight years ago. What we’ve proven is that you can protect the environment, use it wisely and grow the economy and that there is no conflict between the two.
GWEN IFILL: You, like many members of this administration, became the target of an independent counsel investigation. You were exonerated about casino applications in Wisconsin. What did you come out of that experience feeling? Why didn’t you quit? Why didn’t you say, this isn’t worth it?
BRUCE BABBITT: Well, it’s not a pleasant experience. And it’s a terribly political process, because that thing was initiated by the Congress and by, you know, our adversaries in the Congress. They haul you up there for, you know, week after week in this kind of star chamber proceeding. Then at the end of it they say, well, we found nothing, but now it’s time for special counsel. Then you have, you know, a team of a couple dozen lawyers working things for another year or two. Well, the special counsel law has been repealed. Look, I think by the time my case was over and other ones, everybody on both sides of the aisle in Congress said we can’t run a government by this kind of process and they repealed the law and that’s good.
GWEN IFILL: I’ve read where you said to some students that the first thing you need if you’re going to get a high profile job is lawyers’ insurance.
BRUCE BABBITT: No kidding. That’s really true. You’re paying your own bills through this. It’s not a pleasant experience.
GWEN IFILL: Was it worth it after all that?
BRUCE BABBITT: Of course, of course. I look back on it, yeah, I’m in a much worse financial position than I was eight years ago. I’m going to have to go out at age 62 and kind of readdress some of that. But it’s a nasty political environment, a highly partisan, contentious kind of thing. What would I say to my kids or to students or to young people? I wouldn’t miss this opportunity for anything. For the chance to work on these conservation issues, to serve my country, to work for this president, I’d do it all over again, every single minute. Obviously I wouldn’t have said that three or four years ago in the midst of it. But I really believe that. It’s been a marvelous and important experience.
GWEN IFILL: One of the most controversial nominees for the next administration is for your job: Gale Norton from Colorado who is being nominated to take over Interior. What advice would you give her or do you have any advice for her since your world views about some of these issues are so different?
BRUCE BABBITT: Well, I actually wrote her a letter a couple of days ago congratulating her. The tone I tried to convey in the letter is, look, you are a part of a great American historical process. The Department of Interior has been the center since John Wesley Powell and Theodore Roosevelt and many others of the conservation and use of our natural resources. It’s a fabulous organization. Good luck.
GWEN IFILL: Do you think she’s going to need it?
BRUCE BABBITT: Look, this job has always been a crucible of conflict. If you think back over preceding administrations, and the reason is because there is some genuine tension between a western tradition particularly, sort of a boomer tradition of there’s going to be a gold strike there and we’ll mine it out and then we’ll leave and leave all the refuse and toxics and destruction for future generations and what I would call the John Muir tradition, which says this is part of our heritage. We have an obligation to live in harmony with creation, with our capital… with God’s creation. And we need to administer and work that very carefully. There’s tension there in each generation, in each administration. It will be no different in the next one.
GWEN IFILL: In just the way that you encouraged Bill Clinton to basically by executive fiat accomplish a lot of his goals on those fronts, do you worry that by executive fiat the incoming Bush administration can reverse a lot of those gains?
BRUCE BABBITT: Well, not a lot for two reasons. One I’m an optimist. Secondly as a result of the time I’ve spent traveling around this country– I said earlier I learn quickly– that you have to get out of Washington and out of this abstract debate, get out on the landscape and generate support. I think we have public support for everything we’ve done. The set aside of the old growth forests in the Northwest, the President’s creation of this huge marine reserve out in the middle of the Pacific to protect coral reefs, the protection of endangered species, the reintroduction of wolves — all of these monuments — they’re all hugely popular, hugely popular. I was astonished. I mean even in Arizona which is a fairly conservative place, when we started working on these monuments, the public opinion polls said that 75% of the people in Arizona support them — urban, rural, Republican and Democrat. Now, I’m an optimist. I don’t think people are going to start trying to listen to just a few special interests who want to go out there and start cutting and strip mining everything, who are going to say, tear it all down — it was done by Bruce Babbitt and Bill Clinton and therefore it’s bad, tear it down. I think the people will– who advocate having a step back and read those public opinion polls on the front page of the newspapers all over this country saying public supports restoration in restoration of the Everglades, protection of the parks and the creation of monuments.
GWEN IFILL: Well, you can take your optimism with you into the next step of your life. Good luck.
BRUCE BABBITT: Thank you very much.
GWEN IFILL: Thank you.