Ex-interior secretary urges activism | AspenTimes.com

Ex-interior secretary urges activism

John Colson
Mark Fox/The Aspen Times

A former U.S. cabinet member on Sunday gave a cautiously optimistic prognosis for the future of the West, and of the nation’s changing political winds, at a conference in Aspen.

But Bruce Babbitt, a former U.S. secretary of the interior, dashed any presidential hopes his fans might have had when asked if there was any chance he would be running to replace George W. Bush in 2008.

“Zero,” Babbitt replied emphatically. “I don’t want to run for office, I want to set the agenda. Besides, in life you shouldn’t try to cross the same stream twice.”

He was referring to his previous run for the presidency, in 1988, when he failed to win the Democratic Party’s nomination, which went to then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Dukakis lost the election to George H.W. Bush, father of the current president.

Babbitt served as interior secretary under President Clinton, from 1993 to 2001, and was twice under consideration for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

He was the final speaker at the Sopris Foundation’s weekend conference, “Innovative Ideas for a New West,” which drew speakers from around the nation and the world to the Aspen Institute campus.

Babbitt called the conference an “extraordinary Western enterprise,” which he deemed critical to revitalizing political momentum among a segment of the population somewhat demoralized by Bush administration policies, including efforts to sell off an increasing amount of public lands and to expand energy exploration throughout the West and along the coasts.

He characterized land ownership patterns in the West as “a federal creation,” in which the federal government started accumulating vast amounts of acreage in the early 1900s. Those lands were designated as parks, national monuments or gathered into huge tracts of “leftover” land that settlers had no use for, which ultimately fell under the control of the Bureau of Land Management.

Babbitt said early federal stewardship and recent, isolated local land-use regulation and priorities had resulted in preservation of considerable amounts of open space.

But, he added, too many state governments have fallen into patterns of acquiescence to special interests that has contributed to urban sprawl around the West. He called such states “a complete void [of environmental ethics] … riven by ideological and domestic disputes,” which he said has led to a frenzy of energy exploration and road building detrimental to the environment.

He maintained that some states, notably Oregon and New Mexico, have undertaken statewide land-use planning initiatives such as, in Oregon, establishing urban growth boundaries in the 1970s that have discouraged sprawl.

He noted that Pitkin County has done much the same thing, and praised the county’s “visionary” management for creating Transferrable Development Rights as a way to limit growth to the existing urbanized areas while allowing remote landowners to enjoy some of the county’s ongoing development boom.

He said that only through determined citizen involvement, at the local and state levels, can people hope to slow the Bush administration’s attempts to either give away or develop areas that he believes should be left alone.

“I gotta tell you, these guys actually make me nostalgic for Jim Watt,” he joked, referring to President Reagan’s controversial interior secretary. He said Watt’s combative style and sweeping attempts to privatize or develop federal lands “woke us up” and sparked a fervent reaction among environmentalists that stymied many of Watt’s efforts.

“These guys are the exact opposite,” he said, maintaining that the Bush administration is bent on intensifying the development of public lands as surreptitiously as possible. He urged local activists to get to work “at the grass-roots level” to encourage new laws making federal subsidies “conditional” on the creation of land-use plans on a statewide level that can slow the pell-mell pace of exploitation of public lands.

“We need a strategy,” he told his listeners, terming his “conditionality” concept a key weapon in the coming battle. And, he said, “It will either happen here [at the grass-roots level], or it won’t at all” if left to politicians more worried about elections than making sound policy.

“Politicians never have new ideas,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “They can’t. It’s not a good way to get elected. I can tell you from my own experience.”

New ideas, he said, must rise from the citizenry, percolate upward through political institutions and ultimately achieve the level of national debate.

“The change starts back at the grass-roots level … and that’s happening,” he said, citing the growing land trust movement as an example of an idea that originated locally and has spread nationally.

“And you’re at the center of all this,” he told his audience, which he said is “the reason you ought to go out of here [the conference hall] and get this country back on track once and for all.”

John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com

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