Bruce Babbitt, Alone in the Wilderness
Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Outside magazine, October 1994
Bruce Babbitt, Alone in the Wilderness
He was hailed as the Secretary of the Interior who would finally make a difference. Now his friends are abandoning him, his enemies are outmaneuvering him, and the president is nowhere to be found. Will Bruce Babbitt’s missteps on the road to reform prove to be the downfall of an honorable man?
Had he the chance to tinker with his fate, Bruce Babbitt’s forefather Edward might have found a muzzle for his dog. Or a place at the pound. When he popped up in Plymouth in 1639, 12 years of age, the progenitor of the Babbitt clan started the family’s tradition of frontiersmanship in America. In time Edward bought a farm, married the daughter of a Boston leather dresser, and
His children bred like Babbitts, though. The generations edged west. Two centuries later, a notable bunch rode the Atlantic and Pacific railroad out of Cincinnati. In 1886 Geronimo was still at large, and Flagstaff, Arizona, was just a chapped outpost in the ponderosa pines. With his four brothers, Babbitt’s grandfather C. J. bought into the cattle business. They roughed it in
And so cow towns became cities and the frontier was settled. Today the West holds some of the most urban areas of the country, and its future defines a new kind of frontier, one of limits and compromises and trade-offs, where myths collide and cowboys communicate by fax modem. It’s fitting that another Babbitt–C. J.’s 56-year-old grandson Bruce, the former two-term governor of
Clownishly bundled in a red nylon survival suit, Bruce Babbitt peered from the helicopter at a world that is a measure of what the West once was. Wildness reached for the throat. Icebreakers prowled the inhospitable waters of the Beaufort Sea. The white welter of pack ice massed in the north like an army. To the south, gray swells gave way to the green march of the
As he had on the outbound flight to the Kuvulum oil-drilling rig, Babbitt’s U.S. Park Police bodyguard, Norbert Bonjo, looked uneasy. Hail peppered the chopper like buckshot spilling on a drum. The mid-August temperature was in the low thirties. Bonjo’s nine-millimeter might have stopped a disgruntled mining-claim holder or delayed an intemperate polar bear, but it couldn’t
Then again, it could have been jet lag. Babbitt is known for having the stamina of an arctic tern, but it had been a long day, and it still wasn’t over. The day before, he had flown from Washington, D.C., to Anchorage, addressed 700 Interior employees in the evening, and gotten up at dawn for the leg to Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay. Already this morning Babbitt had been briefed by
“I don’t know if the governor of Alaska wants to be seen in the company of the Secretary of the Interior,” Babbitt said lightly, a honeymoon line, possible only when the opposite is true. In the months to come, when the honeymoon was over and his plans were unraveling and his prestige was tarnished, Babbitt would not have the luxury of undercutting himself so insouciantly.
Babbitt’s detachment, his air of preoccupation, usually plays in the press as a charming trait, a central aspect of his comic persona. Journalists have patronizingly detailed his repertoire of facial tics and twitches and served up the stories about how he often forgets to keep money in his wallet or leaves the house in suit pants that don’t match his jacket. It’s all part of
The Secretary of the Interior is high sheriff of some 503 million acres of public land, most of it in 11 western states. Throughout the eighties and early nineties public-land policy was made by sheriffs who put ideology ahead of science–well-connected men who winked at laws they didn’t like and sometimes seemed to confuse the Department of the Interior with the Department of
Even better, he had an agenda to go with the oratory. Much of it had been laid out in Charles Wilkinson’s 1992 book Crossing the Next Meridian. Wilkinson, a law professor at the University of Colorado, argued that federal mining, logging, grazing, and water legislation was stuck in nineteenth century assumptions and served interests that did not
That glorious entrance is starting to look like the setup that precedes the downfall of an honorable man. You can’t be the kind of Interior Secretary that Babbitt wants to be without making enemies, especially in the West, where millions of acres of public land are provincially viewed as semiprivate backyards. It’s often, as Babbitt has been saying lately, a thankless job in
A number of environmentalists have begun to criticize what they see as Babbitt’s lack of leadership skills, what one calls his Lone Ranger style. They worry that he assumes people will follow his ideas just because he has thought a solution through. They worry that he tries to do too much alone and that he’s busy seeking a consensus when he should be mobilizing an army.
“He’s vacillated wildly on his positions,” says Jim Owens, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Western Ancient Forest Campaign, a group dedicated to preserving old-growth forest. “In two years the wool has been stripped from our eyes and people are dissatisfied. He wants the middle ground, but there isn’t room to compromise on these issues, so when he goes for
In calmer moments, environmentalists are also asking: What has Babbitt really accomplished? Where is this vaunted political force called the New West, those urban voters committed to preserving rather than plundering America’s public lands? Where is the crusade Babbitt was supposed to lead? After 12 years as outlaws in the Republican wilderness, they thought the struggle was
When I first caught up with Babbitt in Washington, questions about his leadership had not acquired their current urgency. It was last fall, during round two of the grazing debate, and Babbitt was just a few weeks back from his adventure in Alaska. He had shed the Patagonia jacket and the Merrell boots for a custom-tailored striped suit and a tie so perfectly nondescript that it
Babbitt was still riding high as the “green knight” who had gotten top marks for appointments and hope-stirring speeches. Interior employees should think of themselves as working in the Department of the Environment, he had said. The country had to shift the focus from endangered species to endangered habitat; it had to embrace the concept of ecosystem management. He was
“Environmentally, things are at once better and more threatened,” Babbitt said, sitting in the famous sixth-floor lair of Secretaries past. A large piece of bowhead whale baleen, a gift he received in Alaska, was stashed on a side table. He was still in a position to emphasize strategy before tactics, and his views were informed by his deep sense of history. “The condition of
What Babbitt was determined to prevent were the “train wrecks” that occurred during the Reagan and Bush administrations. The ghastly collision in the Northwest between loggers and environmentalists could have been avoided, in Babbitt’s view, if federal managers had wanted to make the Endangered Species Act work. They preferred, he believed, to exacerbate tensions between
At the time, nine months into the job, what Babbitt had learned about Washington was that “it’s just like state government, only there are three more zeroes on every number.” But he’d had some bitter lessons in the art of the possible, and more were to come. He’d been passed over (for the first of two times) for the Supreme Court. He’d been embarrassed by leaked memos written
He’d been in political circles too long to be considered a Washington naif, but Babbitt’s campaign to hike the price of grass on federal land and to improve the care and protection of the range had enough farcical plot twists and humiliating reversals to brace every welfare cowboy west of the 100th meridian. Round one: In the spring of 1993 Babbitt was reportedly furious (he
Babbitt has a formidable ability to put a positive gloss on bad news. When I spoke with him last fall, he was quick to accent the bright side of his grazing setback. “It raised the visibility of the issue,” he said. “Grazing reform is being discussed on Sunday talk shows and by the National Taxpayer’s Union and the reinventing-government crowd. It’s not just a quiet outrage in
At that time, Babbitt was still having trouble believing that such a fuss had been stirred up over a cushy deal for some 27,000 leaseholders whose cattle, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, had left the crucial riverine habitats of the West “in the worst condition in history.” Even more amazing, the debate had been framed as a little-guy-versus-the-evil-feds
Babbitt had spent the week shuttling over to the Hill to lobby for a bill, introduced by Nevada Senator Harry Reid, that would raise grazing fees and impose national standards on range management. Reid represented the New West, a progressive, urbanized mentality centered in large Western cities, but some senators, notably Orrin Hatch of Utah, had mounted a filibuster, calling
When, by week’s end, the Old West senators had beaten Babbitt’s effort to break the filibuster, it was clear that if Washington was like state government with more zeros, the politics were vastly more complex. What struck others at Interior was Babbitt’s failure to estimate the opposition and, more tellingly, the lack of support from the White House, where there is no one on
“The common wisdom is that we lost and everything’s been downhill since then,” Babbitt said when I spoke with him on the phone in July. “My own view is that the grazing plan, which is now moving toward implementation, is in many ways a superior product to the Reid proposal, which was what the filibuster fight was all about. It’s a different product. There are elements of
But in politics the appearance of pusillanimity is tantamount to a faint heart. Babbitt looked weak in his first big fight, and people noticed. Earlier this year, under heavy political pressure from Democratic western governors, in particular Cecil Andrus of Idaho, Babbitt forced the resignation of Jim Baca, director of the Bureau of Land Management. Baca was arguably the most
By late spring Babbitt had hit something of a nadir. The League of Conservation Voters, which he had headed in the early nineties, gave the Clinton administration’s environmental record a grade of C-plus. When Babbitt’s name surfaced a second time for the Supreme Court in May, the environmentalists who had protested the first attempt to separate their green knight from his
“The one thing I’ve learned in the last year is that Congress is not in the mood to deal with environmental subjects,” Babbitt said in July. “In the 1980s, the EPA and Interior did nothing. Congress responded by passing more and more laws giving more and more administrative authority, which was never used. Now it’s the other way around. Congress has thrown in the towel, and the
But that authority doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In May Babbitt staged a press conference to call attention to the egregious law that allows mining companies to strip countless tons of hard-rock minerals from public land while paying virtually nothing, but he declined to use his administrative power to force the industry to swallow reform. (“It hasn’t exactly been Profiles in Courage,” says Katherine Hohmann, the Sierra Club’s Washington representative for public lands, of Babbitt’s role in the mining debate.) Part of what makes the corridors of the nation’s capital more complex than the power hallways of Phoenix is that the agenda is larger by many orders of magnitude. Bill Clinton obviously has more pressing concerns
Most of the boys in the Flagstaff High School yearbook of 1956 look like Buddy Holly clones; the girls, like cupcake homemakers. And then there’s that mole-eyed senior with the bee-stung lips and the mournful placidity of a romantic poet. As the photo suggests, Bruce Babbitt was an anomaly from early on. He was born in Los Angeles, the second of six children. His mother,
His father, Paul J. Babbitt, was a bright lawyer with a talc-dry sense of humor. But like a lot of Babbitts, he was reserved and self-effacing, too retiring to pose for pictures when the local paper wanted a portrait of the governor’s father. Paul had brought his family back to Flagstaff from California after the death of Bruce’s uncle James E. Babbitt, who had been the Babbitt
Babbitt was a straight-A student throughout high school, manager of the football team, president of his senior class, and valedictorian. He went off to Notre Dame and en route to a degree in geology was elected student-body president. He was also exposed to Catholic writers whose ideas of social justice enlarged his political identity beyond the conservative Republicanism of
In 1960 Babbitt won a coveted George Marshall fellowship, which took him to the University of Newcastle in England, where he received a master’s degree in geophysics. Like any young man, he had a series of epiphanies. On the Dover-to-Calais ferry, he read Aldo Leopold’s classic, A Sand County Almanac, and began to see the landscape of his youth in
In Bolivia in the summer of 1962, flying around in helicopters doing graduate fieldwork in geology, Babbitt was struck by the economic disparity of his life and the lives of the half-starved villagers. He suddenly understood that he, too, belonged to a system of parts, a system that countenanced inequities he hadn’t been exposed to in Flagstaff. He decided that he didn’t want
After he got his law degree he worked for VISTA and the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. It was 1965, the midst of the civil-rights upheavals. Babbitt participated in the march on Selma. He helped put together legal-services programs for the Choctaw Indians and helped integrate Head Start programs in Louisiana and Mississippi. But the times were getting crazier. Riots
The morning air was sharp and chilly as Babbitt buckled himself into the belly of a government floatplane. He’d already burned off his strawberry pancakes hiking up a draw above camp in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He’d watched a lone musk ox lumber through the willows and up the scree slope, its long fringe of fine hair swinging like the grass skirts of a hula troupe.
The plane took him over flat-bottomed Fire Creek and past a mesa where oil-company helicopters drop bigwigs for a million-dollar box lunch. Then it turned north, threading the mountain defile of the Katakturuk River, crossing a bluff where oil actually seeps from the ground and the air, it’s said, “smells like money.” The plane turned east again, and the pilot circled around to
The next day, in Fairbanks, Babbitt spoke to the theme that had been assembling in his thoughts at a large gathering at the University of Alaska’s Wood Center Ballroom. Norbert Bonjo had been advised that people crazy enough to live in Fairbanks could get pretty vehement exercising their First Amendment rights, and while he didn’t have his gun drawn, he was watching the crowd
“When we developed the western frontier,” Babbitt was saying, “we paid a terrible price. We wiped out Indian tribes, separating them from the buffalo. We homesteaded and settled land that couldn’t sustain farming. We dried up and dammed every single stream. We let logging companies go wild. That’s a price we don’t need to pay in Alaska. Here we have a last chance to learn from
“Not always, only most of the time,” said a woman in the front row.
“We’re going to try to lower the rhetoric a little bit,” Babbitt continued. “We’ve got to do that by trying to start with the facts. I understand there are many people who believe our choice is either jobs or the environment. One side says jobs and to hell with the environment, the other side says the opposite. I’ve always felt that’s a false choice.”
When Babbitt opened the floor to questions, a horn-handed white man stood up. “Why should Alaskans be scapegoats for 200 years of progress in the Lower 48?” he asked. “I’m a subsistence hunter. Why are gay activists and vegetarians regulating our lives?”
Just bad luck, one would guess; Babbitt didn’t have an answer. A miner asked him why he wouldn’t publicize what it actually cost to mine on an acre of land. “You mean when am I gonna quit lying?” Babbitt said, defusing the tension.
Finally a friendly face appeared at the microphone, brandishing a sheaf of petitions. “I have 10,000 signatures here opposed to oil development,” the young man announced. The room divided into cheers and hisses. Later that night, Babbitt said, “The kid with the petitions made one mistake.” He looked around the table to see whether the journalists accompanying him had any idea
Perhaps the most compelling thing about Babbitt is the spectacle of a private man caught up in the bad theater of public life. Politics, which is fundamentally immodest, is not the natural milieu of a man who has been brought up to downplay his intelligence for fear of seeming arrogant or proud. As his experience trying to break the grazing-reform filibuster suggests, Babbitt’s
Born politicians also start with some emotional affinity for people and hunt around for issues; Babbitt is the opposite. He proceeds from an intellectual agenda and hopes that the troops will rally behind him. Within the Interior Department some complain that Babbitt turns staff meetings into lectures and makes policy on his own. Babbitt is as capable as the next person of
When Babbitt returned to Arizona at the end of 1967, he joined the law firm of Brown and Bain and began to do legal work for the Navajo. He hadn’t intended to seek public office, but he got to talking with an assistant state attorney general when they were trying a reapportionment case. “I’d ask him, ‘How can you use public money to defend the most blatant case of racial
With his family roots in the state, Babbitt seemed like the perfect candidate for attorney general, but an early poll showed the Babbitt name didn’t count for much, despite its ubiquity.
“Bruce had the same name recognition as a name picked randomly out of the phone book,” recalls his wife, Hattie Babbitt, who is now the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States. Babbitt announced his candidacy at news conferences in Tucson, Flagstaff, and Phoenix with such a remarkable absence of flair that his supporters wondered whether they hadn’t made a
Babbitt got a makeover. It was drummed into him that “look” was important; eventually he consented to dressing in tailor-made suits. He had a mole removed from the right side of his face and started wearing contact lenses. In 1974 he was elected attorney general and immediately roiled the backwater office, becoming a champion of public access to public land. He made it a
By a series of events that would not be credible in fiction–the resignation of the governor and the sudden death of the lieutenant governor–Babbitt woke up one morning in 1978 in charge of Arizona. He was 39 years old. “I got the call about 5 A.M.,” he recalls. “I never even went back to the attorney general’s office.”
Even among conservative Republicans, Babbitt is widely considered to be the best governor Arizona has ever had, the man who consolidated executive authority in a state that for decades had been dominated by the legislature. He established his reputation as a consensus-builder by hammering out a plan for the management of Arizona’s groundwater–an issue so polarized that it had
“Bruce’s greatest weakness is his incorruptibility,” says his friend Ron Warnicke, who served as chief of staff during Babbitt’s first ten months as governor. “His support was always a mile wide and an inch deep. Bruce Babbitt cannot personally involve himself in traditional, ward-heeling, Chicago-style politics. It’s a sin in his view to reward a friend or a relative or
Yet he’d had nothing but success in political life. He won his second full term as governor easily, with 62 percent of the vote. Looking for a bigger forum, he set his sights on the presidency. It was a long shot, he knew, but as his career attested, anything could happen in politics.
The experience was humbling. Babbitt ran aground on his own disdain for the salesmanship and the image-mongering of campaign-by-television. He finished fifth in Iowa. In March of 1988 his father died. It was time to go home.
“Bruce Babbitt,” he said, extending his hand at the Primrose Turnout, mile 17 on the Denali Highway. Governor Hickel had rejoined the Babbitt cavalcade for a 90-mile drive through Denali National Park. When the vans stopped along the road, people flocked around, recognizing the secretary, not the governor.
Car traffic is barred from most of the Denali Highway. Tourists take buses; a seat on a bus is hard to get during the short summer season. Hickel, who is famous in Alaska for grandiose development schemes and for lines like “you can’t let nature run wild,” wants to get more people into the park by building new roads. But more roads, more traffic, would drive away the moose and
“Joe Muldoon down the road says he can’t use the park,” said Hickel to Babbitt and Russ Berry, the park superintendent. The cavalcade had stopped for coffee and conversation at a lodge owned by Wally and Jerryne Cole.
“We don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” Wally Cole chimed in.
“I want you guys to get this,” Babbitt said to journalists who were along for the ride. “This guy is a concessionaire, an old-fashioned capitalist.”
“I’m with you guys, ecology and wilderness and all that,” said Hickel, sounding plaintive. “But what are you going to say to Joe Muldoon down the road who says, ‘I want to see the park?'”
“That’s a philosophical change in the purpose the park was established for,” said Jerryne Cole. “You have to address whether you want to do that.”
Babbitt turned to the superintendent. “Next time we have an opening in the Park Service, you might encourage these people to apply.”
Later in the day, Berry took Babbitt on a hike down the Horseshoe Lake Trail, one of the few things you can do without a reservation or a permit in Denali. As the U.S. Park Police know well, Babbitt is a speedy hiker. Jose Torres, who had to guard Babbitt on a trip to Bolivia, figured he couldn’t keep up with his boss alone, so he arranged a relay of four men to cover the
Fortunately the Horseshoe Lake Trail is just a lazy little loop. Norbert Bonjo was concerned, though, and approached Russ Berry and the assistant superintendent, Linda Toms.
“Is it a secure trail?” he asked.
Berry looked at Toms. She didn’t have a clue how to answer either.
Berry decided he might as well wing it. “Yes,” he said.
Bonjo looked relieved and retired for the evening as Babbitt and the rangers marched off. The Horseshoe Lake Trail leads to a patch of land sandwiched between the Denali Highway and the Alaska Railroad. You can hear truck traffic and coal trains rumbling past. The tourist traps up the road are in plain sight. Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America, might as well be a
“Would James Watt do that?” he asked.
In trying to break the cycles of boom and bust–to balance environmental protection with the pressures of economic growth–Bruce Babbitt has the unenviable task of trying to postpone the apocalypse. He’s proud of the new National Biological Survey, which will catalog every plant and animal species in the United States and which has been attacked by some westerners as a backdoor
“This concept of ecosystem management is a sharp break from the past,” he said when I talked with him in July. “The patchwork, ad-hoc approach has to yield to something else; it’s impossible to make progress anymore without dealing with the whole landscape. Your only hope is to complexify, to throw all factors into play. In the Pacific Northwest we’ve reached a solution that
As for the bitter criticism that his compromises have engendered, Babbitt sees it as a by-product of a new order. “In the politics of ecosystem management,” he said, “there are lots of players, and no one gets 100 percent of what they want, and everybody goes away unhappy.” He cited an incident that occurred last spring, when he was coming out of a hotel in Miami after a press
“There’s lots going on that’s hopeful,” he said at the end of one of our conversations. “Population curves are flattening. The sustainable development debate is underway. We’re aiming at goals that don’t sound utopian and don’t smack of the hair shirt but involve reasonable, manageable changes in the way we live. The New West is out there. It’s aborning. It comes in fits and
And if he falls short of his goals? If the transition is too brutal and the machinations of Washington make a mockery of public-land reform? In Alaska he had joked, “Then I’ll go back to Arizona, write my memoirs, and take a teenage mistress.” But last summer, after what he called his “roller coaster” year, he was taking comfort in the history of his department, which shows
But the point should not be obscured by all of the deflecting humor, all of the smooth talk about common ground and working together: Nothing will hold necessity at bay. Environmentalists may be whining pains in the neck, but they understand that some limits can’t be transcended. At this hour, ecologically and politically, neither Clinton nor Babbitt has much room to move. For
It wasn’t until his last week in Alaska that the Secretary of the Interior got close enough to the West’s West to know it in his bones. And to be reminded anew, perhaps, that there is no compromise with nature. After pinballing from Deadhorse to Kotzebue to Fairbanks to Anchorage to Dillingham to Kodiak, he had flown to Glacier Bay National Park, in southeast Alaska, for five
The flotilla made its way toward the snout of McBride Glacier, where the ice had pulled back, leaving a new world of bare rock and young willows. Icebergs were floating in the small bay at the foot of the glacier. It was midday. The party would be folding its Kleppers and meeting up with a floatplane that evening for the trip out. They’d seen the glories of the habitat: sea
Those who are partial to the mission of Bruce Babbitt might like to think that the future of the West was hanging in the balance, but with his long view he would be the first to say that dialectical forces are larger than one man and that in nature it is the dynamic equilibrium that matters, not the individual. Still, he was grateful that Kelso and his son Christopher paddled
The experience, Babbitt would say later, was “interesting.” But it was not something that his horseman-pass-by reserve would make too much of. Within half an hour he was up and about, the butt of new jokes. Some frontiers you don’t cross before your time.
Chip Brown, an Outside correspondent, was a finalist for the National Magazine Award for feature writing in 1994. He is at work on a book about psychic healing.