Magazine article Insight on the News

Public Lands Policy May Spell Trouble

Magazine article Insight on the News

Public Lands Policy May Spell Trouble

Article excerpt

The appointment of former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt to the post of interior secretary was largely overlooked during the recent controversies of the Clinton transition, and Mr. Babbitt became Secretary Babbitt with nary a question asked. But his appointment may bring radical changes to the administration of federal public lands that could profoundly alter the lives of millions.

Since 1960, public lands have been administered under the philosophy of "multiple use," which allows a wide range of groups to use the lands, including millions of miners, hikers, hunters and fishermen, cattle ranchers, conservationists, and timber harvesters. In recent years, however, conservationists and other environmental interests have waged a battle to "greenline" the lands, prohibiting other groups from using them.

During the interim between his governorship and his recent appointment, Babbitt was the leader of the League of Conservation Voters, one of the environmentalist groups orchestrating the campaign against multiple use of public lands. In the introduction to the league's 1991 Environmental Scorecard of Congress, Babbitt summed up his greenlining strategy: "We must identify our enemies and drive them into oblivion."

Babbitt's harsh rhetorical tone reflected his winner-take-all approach, which he outlined in a recent essay on federal public lands policy. According to Babbitt, the concept of multiple use is obsolete and should be replaced by a new policy, which he calls "dominant public use." What exactly does it mean? Babbitt acknowledges that it "gives priority to recreation, wildlife, and watershed uses."

In an earlier speech to the Sierra Club, Babbitt elaborated, contending that "mining entry must be regulated, timber-cutting must be honestly subordinated to watershed and wildlife values, and grazing must be subordinated to regeneration and restoration of grasslands." Dominant public use is a curious name for a public lands policy that puts the interests of nature and the environmental lobby ahead of all other interests.

In Babbitt's terminology, the activities of loggers, miners and cattle ranchers are "destructive resource exploitation that is of marginal economic importance," while the goals of the environmental lobby are the "highest and best public use" of the lands. …

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