Babbitt: I Was Wronged!

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Not so long ago we drew a harshly unflattering portrait of an unalluring invertebrate known as Bruce Babbitt. We described how, contrary to all his pledges when he was Secretary of the Interior in Clinton time, this same Babbitt is now toiling for a scumbag DC law firm called Latham and Watkins, helping large corporations evade whatever pathetic restraints our laws still place on their rampages. We detailed his long love affair with nuclear power. We noted how he has now become the hired legal gun in two of the most outrageous assaults on the environment in recent California history.

They concern:

The Ahmanson ranch outside Los Angeles, where Washington Mutual plans to build tract homes, extirpating endangered species in the process;

North of Cambria on the Central California Coast where the Hearst family is trying to extort at least $300 million from the feds and the state of California, said money being demanded in lieu of the Hearst family disfiguring the coastline with condos. Babbitt is helping both outfits in their filthy endeavors, devising legal stratagems of a particularly despicable nature.

Our denunciation of Babbitt as a profile in ignominy received wide circulation and now Babbitt has felt it necessary respond, in the Arizona Republic. We quote salient sentences and respond to them.

Babbitt starts by saying our diatribe “alleges that Bruce Babbitt has become a wicked, greedy capitalist. That’s news to me. I am doing the same work today for the same ideals that I pursued in public service in Arizona and as secretary of the Interior.”

Actually Babbitt is telling the truth here. He is indeed pursuing the same work he has always done. Babbitt hails from a wealthy ranching family and there has never been a day when he has not been serving the interests of big landowners, mining companies, utilities and real estate czars. He has been consistent.


Babbitt: “I am trying to find practical conservation solutions to preserve America’s landscape.”

Translation: the word to watch here is “practical”. In other words, Babbitt seeks “solutions” that appeal to those who are restricted by environmental laws, whether the water barons of the southwest or the real estate developers like Donald Brin, of the rapacious Irvine Development Corporation, who want to annihilate the habitat of the gnatcatcher, or the sugar lords of south Florida who want to drain and poison the Everglades.

Babbitt: “The acquisition of the Headwaters Forest in northern California was a major environmental achievement of the Clinton administration. We acquired more than 7,000 acres of ancient coastal redwoods for posterity at a price that was determined by independent appraisal and approved by Congress.”

Translation: I allowed both the federal government and the state of California to be blackmailed out of almost half a billion dollars by Charles Hurwitz. If buying 7,000 acres of land is a major environmental accomplishment, then the millions of acres protected under the 1984 wilderness bills make Ronald Reagan a titan among greens.

Babbitt: “The alternative approach” St Clair and Cockburn seem to offer “is confiscation. That might have worked in Leninist Russia, but it is not the way we do things in America.”

Lenin? Who mentioned Lenin? Babbitt sounds like he’s well versed in the writings of Ron Arnold, leader of the conservative Wise Use movement who talks of government confiscation aka “taking” of private assets. In fact, it was the corporate predator Charles Hurwitz who had confiscated funds with his taxpayer-financed looting of his savings and loan and the pillaging of the Pacific Lumber pension funds, as well as his “confiscation of salmon and owl habitat” by turning it into eroding stumpfields. Remember, all it would have taken to protect the Headwaters Grove and the remaining old-growth and associated forests in northern California would have been an aggressive enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. Of course, that never happened. Babbitt reveals his true views about the endangered species act here. Like the most crazed of the sagebrush rebels, he sees it as an un-American law that violates the Fifth Amendment of the constitution.

Babbitt: St Clair and Cockburn disparage ” the use of easements for the protection of open space. Conservation easements, however, are being promoted by all environmental organizations as an innovative and cost-effective means of preserving open space.”

Conservation easements are neither cost-effective nor do they preserve open space. Indeed, the phrase “open Space” is the give-away here. In Babbitt’s world, open space has been twisted to mean cloverleafs on interstate highways, cemeteries, golf courses, landfills, and other useless lands that corporations have gotten credit or cash for not destroying. What hasn’t been protected is habitat, those big, unwieldy and contentious tracts of land that are dwindling daily and are needed to protect the wolf, the grizzly, the owl and the salmon. Babbitt has personal reasons to look kindly on this approach. His family sold a multi-million conservation easement that barely restricted their activities. Moreover his brothers enjoyed got paid a handsome sum not to develop state-owned lands in Arizona. Nice work if you can get it.

Babbitt: “And that requires bringing together conservationists and landowners to find common ground, to establish land values, and to negotiate provisions that meet the needs of the landowner while preserving the natural landscape for the enjoyment of future generations.

Here we get to Babbitt’s real legacy, the coercive harmony party, where he strong-armed environmentalists to form consensus groups with industrialists, all in the name of the win-win solution. Of course, it took Babbitt, with his phony green credentials (garnered as former head of the League of Conservation Voters) to make this work. No one would have swallowed it during Reagan/Bush time. All militant enviros were banished from the consensus table. If an enviro said “no” to a deal, they were given the boot. If a corporado said no, then the bar was inevitably lowered. That’s the way it worked. Babbitt has a lot to own up to, but the green groups that went along with him are even more to blame.

Babbitt: “Now on to Southern California. The Ahmanson Ranch is an award-winning planned community on the northern edge of Los Angeles. The owner of the property has already made a gift of more than 10,000 acres of the ranch and nearby lands to the Santa Monica Mountains Land Conservancy for permanent preservation as open space.”

Translation: the 10,000 acres couldn’t be developed in any event. So in a typical Babbitt two-step, the developers (a Seattle banking house/real estate conglomerate) are getting credit [and awards, no less) for not destroying lands that they couldn’t build on in the first place. Only in Babbitt-land world could this “gift” somehow make up for the fact that they are destroying the habitat for not one but two endangered species.

Babbitt: “The owner is now preparing to develop the planned community on less than 2,000 acres of the remaining land. I have been retained to work with environmental organizations and the surrounding communities to hear their remaining concerns, and to assure that the developers are meeting the highest standards relating to traffic management, storm drainage, endangered species and other land-use issues.”

Translation: the key phrase here is “work with environmental organizations.” The local groups working to protect the lowly spineflower and red-legged frog rightly despise Babbitt. So do the local wise use groups, who see him as a two-faced con artist. The only people Babbitt can influence these days are the big environmental groups who he has used so shamefully in the past, groups like the Planning and Conservation League, the Environmental Defense fund and the NRDC.

Babbitt: When St Clair and Cockburn condemn “my work with a landowner seeking to develop less than 16 percent of its land after gifting over the other 84 percent into public ownership,” it only unmasks their ” hostility toward working within the system to achieve good, lasting conservation solutions.”

Translation: Babbitt evokes his work with ‘landowners’, suggesting that his reign at Interior was focused saving on the plight of the Jeffersonian agrarianist. Naturally, this is a ruse. Babbitt’s landowners were big timber corporations, big real estate developers, big mining companies, and big agribusiness. Babbitt didn’t “work within the system”. He bent the system of existing environmental laws so that corporations could get away with destroying rare habitat without incurring legal sanctions and indeed sometimes even getting handsome government handouts.

Babbitt: “What about nuclear power? There is an abundant need for more creativity in responding to America’s power generation and conservation needs. There is no one solution. I do believe that for the foreseeable future, nuclear power is and should be part of America’s power supply mix.”

No translation required. While Bush and Cheney are rightly savaged for wanting to revive nuclear power, Babbitt here outs himself as one of their peers, which is no surprise to those who know him and his services for the Palo Verde reactor outside Phoenix, one of the biggest nukes in the US.

Babbitt: “Why? Because the continued burning of fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – is the principal cause of global warming, which is far and away the most severe environmental threat of our time.

Translation: This is straight out of the Nuclear Energy Institute’s playbook: nuclear power should enjoy a new round of subsidies because of the threat of global warming.

Babbitt: “For the sake of future generations, we must phase out fossil fuels, especially coal. Even as we invest in conservation and efficiency and renewable energy, we will need nuclear in the mix to provide base-load power. If we reject nuclear power and continue to burn fossil fuels at current rates, our children are going to be living in summer temperatures of 135 degrees in Phoenix.”

Translation: Patently absurd. Even under the gloomiest of the global warming scenarios (which are all open to question, as even they admit), the climate of Phoenix is likely to get better not worse. Even so, if there is one major city that could power itself off of solar radiation, it’s Phoenix.

Babbitt: “And they will be without water, for as the Colorado Rivers dwindles in volume, the Central Arizona Project will dry up as other states with higher priorities claim the entire river supply.”

Babbitt’s support of the Central Arizona Project, one of the most wasteful and destructive water projects since the days of Mulholland, as governor and Secretary of interior is the most telling evidence of his malign environmental credentials.

Babbitt: “As secretary I helped the president to set aside 60 million acres of roadless areas in national forests, to protect an additional 20 million acres under the Endangered Species Act, and to create nearly 10 million acres of new national monuments.”

Translation: In no way did we ever seriously discommode the lumber and mining companies, and in fact we saved them from the fury of federal judges like Dwyer of Seattle, outraged at the way both the government and the corporations were flouting the law.

Babbitt: St Clair and Cockburn are “really saying we haven’t done enough because we should agree that landowners are not entitled to the reasonable use of private property. Obviously I disagree with such radical nonsense. There is room both to protect creation and to accommodate human needs on this planet. It is hard work, and it frequently means bringing opposing parties together to find common ground. I am proud to be doing that, much as I have done throughout my time as governor of Arizona and secretary of the Interior.”

Translation: Thank God for law firms like Latham and Watkins, which is paying my legal bills, stemming from charges that as Secretary of the Interior I was privy to an extortion scheme aimed at gouging money out of poor Indians. CP

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. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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