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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Administration View

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth host Steve Curwood talks with US Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt who will be one of the key players at the forest conference. Babbitt believes a compromise protecting the spotted owl as well as allowing some logging to begin by all is possible.


CURWOOD: A key member of the White House entourage in Portland will be Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior. He says the President is going to Portland with the idea of looking for a compromise that will protect the spotted owl and lead to the resumption of some logging on Federal lands, perhaps by fall. But it will be difficult to craft a plan, says Babbitt, because emotions are running high, and certain actions were taken by the previous Administration.

BABBITT: I think what we should get out of this conference is a good beginning, that the President will do what he does so well, which is listen carefully, ask a lot of good questions, and build a sense of confidence and participation. I think in a sense you could compare it to the conference in Little Rock on the economy that took place just before Christmas. It was a conference that did not yield a sort of manifesto at the end of the day. It was the beginning of a process which led to a budget proposal which led to legislation now moving through Congress. And I think that's the pathway that this could well take.

CURWOOD: In advance of the conference, there's some sense of confrontation here. We hear that loggers are going to send trucks and have demonstrations, that environmentalists are planning to have some large rallies. We didn't see this before the President's economic conference in Little Rock.

BABBITT: Well, bear in mind that this dispute has been going on for ten years now, and that the Federal Government for the last ten years has been part of the problem -- it's really been the enemy. The parties who should have solved it, Forest Service and my own Department, the Department of the Interior, have spent their time stonewalling, being duplicitous in front of the Federal judge, and finally leading the judge to issue an injunction saying 'no more timber cuts at all until you get your act together'. So, if there's a certain level of tension and a certain skepticism about the Federal Government, all I can say is, I certainly understand why, because these people who are out of jobs have been misled and two-timed by the Federal Government.

CURWOOD: Those are pretty strong charges, that the previous people in your office and in the Agriculture Department, the Forestry Service, lied and were duplicitous.

BABBITT: Those are strong words, but I would ask you to read the written judicial opinions of Judge William Dwyer, who is the Federal judge in Seattle, a Reagan appointee -- if you read his opinions, he doesn't use exactly those words, but I would submit to you that those are accurate words to describe what that judge said about the behavior of Federal agencies who clearly were trying to undermine the law, frustrate the judge, and discredit the entire administration of the Federal laws.

CURWOOD: To the end of?

BABBITT: Well, that's the question. And I suspect it will take a novelist or a historian to understand what went on, and the reason that I can't answer the question is that sometimes incompetence and inattention has the same look as a deliberate conspiracy, so I think there are really two explanations. One is they just weren't interested, didn't care about the fate of the people and said we're just going to let the train wreck occur. That's the incompetence and inattention theory. The conspiracy theory says that it was a deliberate attempt to destroy these communities and people's lives and create a crisis for a political purpose, so that they could then go back in an election year and say, see the crisis? The law won't work, therefore you've got to repeal the laws and blame the environment.

CURWOOD: What's at stake here for the President politically?

BABBITT: Well, I think it's important because you'll remember that during the campaign the old-growth forest became a sort of symbol of two different approaches: the Bush Administration saying you can have either economic growth or the environment, it's either jobs or the environment, you can't have both, you're gonna have to choose, and our choice is to allow the destruction to continue -- President Clinton in contrast in Portland said, I believe that if we work together we can find space for both, and indeed that it's important to have a sound environment as the basis for a strong economy. So that's really what's at stake. It's an important issue in those two states; it is a test of the President's ability to get the Federal agencies together, get a plan going. It's not going to be easy. I mean, the timber cut levels that were permitted in the last Administration were false and artificial, they can't be sustained, and surely expectations have got to be lowered and be reasonable. But in that context I think that we can get people together.

CURWOOD: Bruce Babbitt is US Secretary of the Interior. Coming up, more perspectives on the forest conference in the Pacific Northwest , but first . . .



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