High Plains Grifter?

Article excerpt

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's ranching clan reaches every corner of Arizona. Supporters say he is in tune with the land; critics say he has lost his way.

There's an old saw told on Arizona's high plateau about one family that so completely dominated the area during the last century that even sheep on the range seemed to know who was boss and could be heard to bleat "Baaabbitt."

Fewer Arizonans see humor in the joke today. Not just because the Babbitt clan is less dominant than it once was, but because of controversial -- some say ethically questionable -- actions by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, a grandson of one of five industrious brothers who went West in 1886 to grow up with the country, leaving their brands on this land.

Though Babbitt still is a name respected by many and the family is seen as a benevolent, civilizing force whose business and ranching empire is ruled with a light touch, others here say that grandson Bruce -- whom some see as a city slicker and Washington insider who has lost touch with his roots -- risks tarnishing the name in a hasty rush to leave his own mark on Arizona before his tenure as U.S. secretary of the Interior expires.

Two regional controversies -- the January creation by President Clinton of two national monuments in the state and the likely approval of a major new commercial development at the gateway to the Grand Canyon -- have prompted numerous allegations against Babbitt, ranging from blatant conflicts of interest to more commonplace hypocrisies. An attempt by Insight to sort though the allegations, sifting the credible from the crazy, at least proves one thing: Though Babbitt has recused himself from decisions as secretary that would benefit his family, when a family is as large and entrenched in the region as is his, it may be difficult to take any action on or around the Coconino Plateau that doesn't affect the prolific Babbitts.

As one longtime Arizonan puts it: "If you get north of Cordes Junction and don't want to do business with the Babbitts, you might as well turn back."

Last summer, after years of wrangling, the U.S. Forest Service gave its go-ahead for creation of Canyon Forest Village, or CFV, a $330 million commercial development proposed as a gateway community to the Grand Canyon National Park. That deal was dependent, in turn, on a controversial land exchange in which 272 acres of national forest near Tusayan, a hodgepodge of hotels and gas stations at the south entrance of Grand Canyon National Park, would be traded for 2,117 acres of private holdings on public lands, including more than 740 acres owned by members of the Babbitt family. The land swap cannot be completed unless the zoning is approved.

Babbitt's former work as lobbyist for CFV's mastermind, Scottsdale developer Tom De Paolo, and his past appearance in a video promoting the project (Babbitt asked CFV to stop showing the video after becoming secretary; the company complied) raised questions about conflicts of interest and fueled perceptions that the process was rigged in the project's favor. Not helping such perceptions was the ardent and open support for De Paolo's plan shown by Paul Babbitt, the secretary's brother, who sits on the Coconino County Board of Supervisors. Paul Babbitt's last-minute recusal from deliberations over CFV's zoning approval, after a Phoenix attorney warned that he might qualify as an interested party to the decision, only served to cast longer shadows over a process that calls out for closer scrutiny, according to critics.

The county's board of supervisors -- minus Paul Babbitt -- will be voting in March on CFV's zoning approval, but opponents are certain to force a countywide referendum on the issue this fall. Meanwhile, the land swap is the subject of a federal lawsuit brought by the Grand Canyon Improvement Association, representing area businesses whose officers believe their economic future is threatened by the big development. …