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A Concise History of the Rise and Fall of the Enviro Establishment

How Green Became the Color of Money

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

A Touch of Babbittry

Bruce Babbitt’s inglorious role in brokering the Deal of Shame, which restarted logging in the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, shocked many greens. After all, Babbitt was viewed as one of them. He had been president of the League of Conservation Voters, and many had seen him as the eco-chevalier of the Clinton administration. But the gratuitous stab in the back should have surprised no one.

Babbitt came from a big-time ranching family fed and fattened on the western traditions of cheap water, free range and unregulated mining. When mineworkers in Arizona walked off the job citing unsafe and unfair working conditions at the Phelps Dodge silver mine in the early 1980s, then Governor Babbitt called in the National Guard to crush the strike on behalf of the mining company, which had long planned the confrontation in consort with the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School as a test case for breaking strikes and unions with permanent "replacement workers."

Babbitt also strong-armed federal park officials in order to secure approval of a resort complex near the rim of the Grand Canyon. The resort was owned by a long-time friend and political supporter.

But Babbitt is perhaps most notorious for his single-minded pursuit of Colorado River water. The multi-billion dollar Central Arizona Project channeled millions of ‘acre feet’ of precious water into sprawling developments absurdly located in the Arizona desert to assuage the thirst of real estate czars in Phoenix and Tucson. While Babbitt supported mighty water allocations to his state, he opposed them for his neighbors, vigorously objecting to water claims made by California and Utah. These western water battles brought Babbitt into the embrace of the infamous Richard Carver, a commissioner in Nye County, Nevada. Carver was a key leader of the ‘county supremacy’ movement, which asserts that the federal government does not have the constitutional right to own land. Carver promoted his cause at gatherings of far right groups across the West, most notably at the Jubilation, an event organized by the racist Posse Comitatus.

In August 1994, Carver ignited a war with the federal government when he mounted a bulldozer and plowed an illegal road into the Toiyabe National Forest, nearly running over two Forest Service rangers. Carver, who touted Babbitt as one of his closest friends, threatened to shoot anyone who tried to stop him. Although harassment of a federal employee is a felony, punishable by a $250,000 fine and up to 10 years in prison, six months passed and the federal government took no action. Finally, only a civil suit was filed, and that against the Nye County government itself, no Carver. Some local BLM and Forest Service rangers believed that Babbitt intervened with the Department of Justice investigation on behalf of his friend Carver.

Other friends of Bruce Babbitt haven’t fared nearly so well. Take Jim Baca, who came from one of the oldest Hispanic families in the Southwest and who served for several years as the lands commissioner for the state of New Mexico, where he acquired a reputation as a progressive and hard-nosed conservationist. But Baca’s anti-cattle grazing stance earned him the enmity of ranchers throughout the West. Over the objections of the National Cattlemen’s Association and the American Mining Congress, Babbitt chose Bace to oversee the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency in charge of administering about 250 million acres of public lands in the West—lands long viewed as the private dominion of cattle ranchers and gold mining companies.

Baca tried to make ranchers pay market rates for the use of public grasslands. (At the time, ranchers paid less than a fifth of grazing rates charged on private and state lands—a $200 million a year subsidy.) Then Baca went after the gold companies. The feisty new head of the BLM became a vigorous advocate for the repeal of the 1872 Mining Law, which allowed gold and silver mining companies to claim title to public lands for as little as $2.50 an acre and then pay no royalties on the billions of dollars of minerals they extract. Baca fought for an 8 percent royalty on mining of all public minerals and for an end to the transfer of federal lands to mining companies. Finally, Baca became the first BLM director to openly advocate for the need for more legally-designated wilderness. He supported setting aside nearly 20 million acres of high desert and mountain country in Utah, Idaho and Oregon as wilderness: closed to logging, mining and grazing.

This ran Baca athwart very powerful interests, many residing in the Democratic Party. Baca’s most vicious opponent turned out to be the Democratic Governor of Idaho, Cecil Andrus, former Secretary of the Interior and a former employee of the Wilderness Society, where Baca had once served as a director. In December of 1993, Andrus attacked Baca in a letter to Babbitt, pronouncing: "My friend, frankly, you don’t have enough political allies in the West to treat us this shabbily." Later, Andrus, who after retiring as governor joined the boards of two mining companies, threatened publicly, "It’s either Baca or Babbitt. One of them’s gotta go."

A few days later Babbitt announced in the Washington Post that Baca had been unceremoniously transferred from his BLM post to a vague new role as a policy advisor to Babbitt. There was a problem. No one had told Baca about the move and he resisted, publicly.

"I thought that Babbitt at least owed it to me as a long-time friend to explain why I was being ousted," Baca said. "I wanted him to ask me for my resignation personally." Babbitt, chastened by criticism from the press, pulled back. He held off removing Baca for a month. Then he called Baca into his office and told him to either accept the demotion or tender his resignation. Baca resigned. A month later, as he contemplated a run for governor of New Mexico, Baca said, "Babbitt can’t stand up for his principles, because he has no backbone."

The Baca debacle was eerily reminiscent of a similar purge of federal land managers during the first Bush administration, when White House chief of staff John Sununu engineered the removal of regional directors of the National Park Service and Forest Service who had stoop up against the timber, mining and oil companies which wanted increased access to the public lands adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. This firing of federal land managers sparked roars of protest from environmentalists, prompting congressional hearings and stories in the press and on TV. However, the national environmental leadership remained strangely mute following the removal of Baca.

The man Babbitt chose to replace Baca, Mike Dombeck, was much friendlier to ranching and mining interests. Six months after his appointment Dombeck drafted a secret memo to Bruce Babbitt outlining a plan that would have seemed radical during the tenure of James Watt. As a budget-cutting measure, Dombeck advised Babbitt that the BLM could either turn over 110 million acres of federal land to the states or sell them off to the highest bidder. An attempt earlier in the 20th century to dispose of public lands and resources had sent former Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall to prison in the Teapot Dome scandal.

Babbitt’s right hand man at Interior was Tom Collier. Before joining the Clinton administration, Collier and Babbitt worked together at the DC law firm / lobby shop Steptoe and Johnson, where their clients included many of the same companies they were later in charge of regulating at Interior, including Burlington-Northern, Aluminum Companies of America, Canadian Forest Industries Council, Canyon Forest Village Corp., Sealaska, Yavapai-Prescott Tribe and the Forest Industries Committee on Timber Taxation and Valuation.

One of the companies previously represented by Collier and Babbitt was Norwegian Cruise Lines, which held a lucrative permit for cruise visits into Glacier Bay National Park in southeast Alaska. For years the company and former Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski pressured the National Park Service to increase the number of cruise visits into the narrow fjords of Glacier Bay. The Park Service resisted, fearing harmful affects from the huge ships on orca, gray whales and other marine life. In fact, Park Service biologists were hoping to curtail the number of cruise ships permitted in the bay, if not ban them outright. Then Babbitt and Collier intervened. They overruled Park Service scientists and arbitrarily raised the number of cruise ship visits, leading to millions in profits for their former clients.

* * *

In the spring of 1995 the Clinton administration’s merciless pursuit of free trade pacts collided head on with the world’s most glamorous animal: Delphinus delphis—dolphins to you.

Here’s how this ugly episode went down.

For many years Mexico had been whining about being prohibited from selling its canned tuna north of the border. The US had mandated that only dolphin-free tuna be imported into the country, requiring methods of fishing that don’t snag dolphins as part of the tuna haul. This prohibition was one of the great victories of the 1980s, but no sooner was the NAFTA agreement signed by the Clinton administration than Mexico denounced the US tuna law as a cruel restraint on free trade and demanded its rescission.

Prodded by Mickey Kantor, the chief US trade rep, the Clinton White House speedily assented, but cautioned that some national environmental organizations would have to be wheeled forward to provide political cover against assaults from the volatile and potent dolphin lobby. Enter the Environmental Defense Fund, a fanatical espouser of free trade as the salve for more or less everything. EDF was vociferously pro-NAFTA and had positioned itself as a long-time foe of dolphin protection laws as "ideologically unsound."

The crucial meeting to settle the dolphins’ fate took place at the Mexican embassy in Washington, DC in July of 1995. Here US and Mexican bureaucrats hunkered down with executives from the Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, World Wildlife Fund and the Center for Marine Conservation. Carefully excluded from this parlay were pro-dolphin groups such as Earth Island Institute and the Humane Society. Also shut out were the congressional members and staffer who had framed the 1992 law protecting the dolphins, seven million of which had perished in the waters of the eastern Pacific between 1970 and 1992.

The secret session in the Mexican embassy was not an auspicious occasion for the world’s brainiest mammal. The conspirators agreed that the 1992 law should be over-turned and new statutory language devised that would allow Mexico’s dolphin-lethal tuna to roll north into US supermarkets. Staffers from the EDF and World Wildlife Fund would write the new bill in language congenial to corporate-friendly greens with help from Bud Walsh, an attorney who had labored for big business and the Wise Use Movement.

Next came the task of selling dolphin death on the Hill. In the forefront of the lobbying was former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth, who had been brought on by Clinton to serve as Undersecretary of State for global environmental affairs. Wirth dispatched hand-written notes to crucial senators urging them to sign on to the bill and promoted it as a a "good package with a sound science/enviro base with Breaux and Stevens as sponsors."

Now, when it comes to environmental matters John Breaux of Louisiana and Ted Stevens of Alaska were four-square for rape and pillage and long carried water for Don Tyson, Arkansas’s chicken and fish king. But some seasoned observers of Beltway politics were puzzled at Wirth’s stance for the dolphin killers. Early in 1995 Wirth had taken the trouble to leak to the Washington Post a memo he’d sent to the White House urging Clinton to stand firm against those around him counseling sell-outs of Mother Nature.

But the dark side of Tim Wirth’s environmentalism goes back to his days in the senate and his friendship with Senator John Heinz, the ketchup heir, with whom he had drafted "Project 88," the detailed manifesto of free-market environmentalism, which zestfully encouraged replacement of federal laws and regulations with cash inducements for corporate pillagers to behave themselves.

After Senator Heinz’s death, Wirth and his wife Wren grew especially close to his widow Teresa Heinz. Following a period of grieving, the widow soon pressed forward into a romance with Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. The tinder ignited at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, where they mightily impressed other junketeers by conversing in French.

Teresa Heinz, the daughter of a Portuguese doctor, was brought up as a child of empire in Mozambique, went to university in apartheid South Africa and apparently brought with her to the United States an ardent veneration for the capitalist system, and indeed for capitalists. Fortified by Heinz millions, Teresa made her way onto the board of the Environmental Defense Fund and—in the late 1980s when the EDF was heavily involved in various Amazonian promotions and fundraising endeavors—used to sweep into the western Amazon in great style, gazing with marked disfavor on the unruly rubber-tappers mustered at the Rio Branco airport to meet her. Frantic EDF staffers would plead with the seringueiros to shed their radical buttons and signs lest Madame Teresa conclude that the EDF had fallen into bed with Third World revolutionaries, instead of promoting parks from which Indians and rubber-tappers could swiftly be evicted.

Being a member of the Heinz family added clout to Teresa’s stern ideological views, clout in the form of a fortune then estimated at between $670 million and $740 million. Hence the moral crisis for Senator John Kerry. Teresa Heinz lobbied forcefully for the new death-to-dolphins bill. But her new husband (the couple had married in July of 1995) was a doughty dolphin ally, possibly because this splendid mammal is not profuse on the St. George’s Banks, nor in other haunts of the New England fishing fleet.

If a last-ditch defense of the 1992 law was to be mounted, John Kerry was the very man to lead it. But the senator had new cares and burdens. When he gave up Morgan Fairchild for Teresa Heinz and joined with her in the refreshments of matrimony, Kerry was asked whether he would use his wife’s fortune to stake his political races. Kerry said he wouldn’t. Unless, that is, his opponent also put up family money.

In the waning days of 1995, Massachusetts’s Gingrich-loving Governor, William Weld, announced that he would challenge Kerry. The wealthy Weld proved a formidable opponent. Kerry thus confronted an enormous temptation to turn to his wife for help. His zeal for the dolphins declined markedly.

Meanwhile Teresa busily pressed the Heinz Corporation, whose subsidiary, Star-Kist, is the world’s leading tuna processor. Having invested millions in dolphin-safe fishing fleets and having mined excellent publicity for its "dolphin-safe tuna," Star-Kist was loath to see the 1992 law changed. It claimed that the new law would cost the company 6,000 jobs in American Samoa. Nonetheless, Teresa, one of the Heinz Corporation’s largest stockholders, lobbied Star-Kist to adopt a more cold-blooded attitude toward the dolphins. All this work paid off in 1997 when congress finally passed the dolphin death act.

In December of 1995, Teresa Heinz, through her foundation, disbursed the largest single environmental grant in US history: $20 million for an environmental center to promulgate the free-market economics her late husband outlined before his death.

To be continued.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is published by AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.   

This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming book GreenScare: the New War on Environmentalism by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and Joshua Frank.

Click here to read Part One.

Click here to read Part Two.

Click here to read Part Three.

Click here to read Part Four.