Bruce Babbitt: Man Without Shame

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

No better case for cynicism about politics is currently available that the career of Bruce Babbitt, Interior Secretary in Clinton time, an era now bodied forth by major green groups in their fundraising material as a time when stewardship of the nation’s natural resources can contrast finely with the pillage supposedly ushered in by the Cheney-Bush crowd.

Before leaving the Department of Interior, Babbitt promised that he wouldn’t cash in on his years of government service by becoming a high-priced DC lawyer. Then he promptly took a job with Latham and Watkins, a big Washington law firm whose clients include some of the roughest environmental pillagers in the business. Babbitt defended his about-face by saying that he needs to make money to pay off his legal bills stemming from an independent counsel investigation into whether or not he committed perjury when he said did not try to shake down Indian tribes for campaign contributions.

Within days of landing his new job as a counsel in the firm’s Environmental Litigation shop, Babbitt could be found at the annual gathering of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the $3 billion lobbying arm of the nuclear industry, cheerleading for the planned Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Dump, on Western Shoshone lands in Nevada. The Clinton administration opposed the dump, acting more out of a desire to keep Nevada Sen. Harry Reid happy than any sudden seizure of ecological conscience. “It’s a safe, solid geologic repository,” Babbitt proclaimed, evoking a standing ovation from the massed nukers, something even Dick Cheney had failed to do when he spoke to the NEI earlier that morning.

Among Babbitt’s present clients are two of the biggest developers on The California coast: Washington Mutual, developers of the Ahmanson Ranch in Ventura County and the Hearst ranch at San Simeon below Big Sur. In his last year as interior secretary Babbitt resisted protective measures for the endangered red-legged frog and San Fernando spineflower as endangered species. The spineflower, an ankle high plant with delicate white flowers that resemble baby’s breath, was declared to be extinct in 1929, until botanists found several thousand plants growing on the south slope Laskey Mesa, where many of the shops and homes in the 5,500 Ahmanson ranch development are scheduled to be built. The red-legged frog similarly flourishes on Ahmanson property. If Babbitt’s Interior Department had rated the species as requiring critical habitat it would been another serious block against development plans.

On April 15 of this year the New York Times published an op-ed by Babbitt arguing for an easing of classification procedures involving endangered species. Neither he not the NYT felt it necessary to disclose that as a lawyer working for Washington Mutual and the Hearsts, Babbitt was a highly interested party.

Babbitt’s association with the Hearst Ranch presents an equally unattractive picture of yesterday’s supposed protector of the environmental abetting a scheme either to wreck the coastline below Hearst castle south of Big Sur, or extort staggering sums from the feds and the state of California for leaving it alone, at least for the time being until, twenty five years down the road, the costly conservation easements are forgotten and development begins.

During his tenure at Interior, Babbitt ushered through hundreds of complex lands swaps and federal buyouts of private property where potential development plans had been stymied by environmental restrictions. The deals often ended up with the developers getting much more money than their land is worth. The most high profile example was the Headwaters Forest bailout, where corporate raider Charles Hurwitz ran off with more than $480 million for land that an Interior Department land appraiser concluded had a market value of less than $100 million.

A news story by Kenneth Weiss and John Johnson in the Times earlier this week described how lawyers for the Hearst family are taking advantage of a new entirely legal scam whereby 19th century records known as certificates of compliance can be used for such purposes as creating ocean-front parcels and subdivisions, over-riding existing zoning restrictions, even though the original parcels may have been inland and worthless terrain. As the news story made clear, developers have been using the law as leverage to extort huge sums from conservation groups as the price for easements protecting the land.

Hearst lawyers have amassed a parcel of documents that could allow the corporation to chop the 83,000-acre ranch into 279 parcels and create oceanfront subdivisions. According to the Los Angeles Times, Steven Hearst has suggested that the Hearst Corporation may be willing to forego such plans if the government will pony up $300 million or more to buy them out.

Babbitt defends the use of certificates of compliance to maximize the value of the land. “I would advise any client who is considering alternative uses to perfect their rights,” he told the Times. “It’s good, proper and correct to do that.” Yes, this is the Interior Secretary who, with vice president Al Gore, railed against developments eroding America’s natural treasures. Is there a better argument than Babbitt for the Naderites’ case that on the practical level the two parties are one, and the despoliation continues whether Babbitt or Gale Norton run Interior or which one of them spins through the revolving door and go to work for a firm like Latham and Watkins. CP

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch. Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

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