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

Babbit Makes Good on Grazing Fees Pledge

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with Washington Post reporter Tom Kenworthy about the political implications of the Clinton administration's decision to raise the fee for grazing livestock on public lands. Kenworthy says the move by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, in the face of strong opposition from important political allies, shows that Babbitt has emerged as one of the President's most influential deputies.


CURWOOD: Back in February, when President Clinton proposed his budget, he also called for sharp increases in fees for the private use of public lands, including grazing and mining. The move prompted a swift and negative reaction from Western Democratic senators, who forced the President to take the fee hikes out of the budget. The retreat brought howls of protest from environmentalists, and was seen as big loss for Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who had made the fees a cornerstone of his vision for environmental reform. The Administration promised at the time that the move was only a tactical retreat, and that the planned reforms would be back - either through administrative action, or in separate legislative proposals. And, less than a week after the President's budget squeaked through Congress, Babbitt began to make good on that vow, unveiling a plan to raise grazing fees administratively. Tom Kenworthy covers the environment and natural resources for the Washington Post, and he joins me now from Washington. Tom, a few months ago, you seemed to doubt the administration's sincerity on public lands reform.

KENWORTHY: Well, this is one of those rare cases where things happen the way the Administration said they were going to happen and the way Bruce Babbitt said they were. I think a lot of us in Washington were quite cynical about what might happen down the road when the White House said, don't worry about this, we're going to do this through separate legislation or administratively. Bruce Babbitt took the White House at its word and plowed ahead and had his people working on this for many weeks and lo and behold, they came out with a proposal that satisfied the environmentalists and satisfied the critics of the grazing fee system on Capitol Hill.

CURWOOD: Now are the environmentalists really getting what they wanted here?

KENWORTHY: I think they're getting just about everything they wanted. Some of them would say they would have preferred a higher fee, and they're a little bit concerned about how this is going to be implemented on the ground, but as Cindy Shogan of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance said yesterday, this is the full loaf.

CURWOOD: What about the timing here - this comes three days after the budget passed and before it was yanked when the Western votes were needed from senators for the budget. Is there any accident here?

KENWORTHY: No accident at all. I don't think they wanted to give Dennis DeConcini or any of the other Western Democrats another reason to vote against the budget. This was clearly intended to come out after the key votes in the House and Senate.

CURWOOD: But will it be seen as a double-cross?

KENWORTHY: I don't think so. I think frankly on this issue a number of the Senate Democrats are just as glad to have the Administration do it administratively so they don't have to vote on it.

CURWOOD: Now, what does all this say about the stature of Bruce Babbitt? How does the President regard him?

KENWORTHY: I think the President has enormous regard for Bruce Babbitt. I think he views Babbitt as the one person who can push through these kind of land use reforms in the West without generating a political backlash that's going to hurt him. You know, he's older than the President, he's been a governor himself, he's run for President, he just, he's really turning into a star of this Cabinet, and all indications I have are than Clinton's giving him a long leash.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you about this long leash - what will it mean, do you think, for the Administration, that Bruce Babbitt has this kind of stature? There are not a lot of heroes so far in this Administration.

KENWORTHY: No, there are not. The word around town is that there's two big stars in the Cabinet, there's Attorney General Janet Reno and there's Bruce Babbitt. But the President is gonna be well served by Babbitt out West. The West was a key electoral battleground for the President and Babbitt is a Westerner. He comes from a long ranching family, you know, he has the hat and the cattle too, and I think he's gonna defuse a lot of the bad feelings that some of these policies might invoke out there.

CURWOOD: What's next here? At the time this was yanked out of the budget there was also a proposal around mining, there was a proposal around water use - what will the Interior Secretary look to do next?

KENWORTHY: Well, this is the point where it gets to the steep part of the hill. As you said, on the grazing fees they could do this administratively. The next step for it is on reforming the 1872 Mining Law, and that's a battle on Capitol Hill, it's going to be very contentious, it's very tough to win in the Senate on that, the House is going to move the bill in September and then it goes to conference. Much tougher for Babbitt to pull off - we'll see, this'll be a real test for him.

CURWOOD: Now what about the Endangered Species Act? We saw Babbitt invoke the Act during the Forest Summit, telling the President, look, this is, you can only go so far, the law does require you to pay attention to these aspects of the law. Now of course it's up for renewal. Looks to me like a major battle; how do you think he'll do?

KENWORTHY: Well, Bruce Babbitt is a believer in the Endangered Species Act. But he is trying very hard this year to demonstrate to Congress and to some of the Act's critics that it's a law that is not as draconian as its opponents might try to make it, that it's a law that can accomodate both the needs of species that are in jeopardy and if necessary economic activity. He's been doing a number of things in Texas and California, and obviously in the Pacific Northwest to show that the Act has a lot of flexibility in it, that it can be made to work and it doesn't have to be watered down.

CURWOOD: What do you think will be the significance of Babbitt's tenure for the environmental debate?

KENWORTHY: Well, I think a lot of the, some of the most contentious issues over the last few years have involved land-use policy in the West. Many of us in the East don't realize the extent of government control over the West. There's vast tracts of land out there where cattle are grazed and gold is mined and timber is harvested and I think you're going to see a fundamental reexamination and change in how those lands are treated. Babbitt likes to say, we're going to walk softly on the land, and I think that's what he's trying to do, and so far at least he's on the way to accomplishing it.

CURWOOD: Okay. Hey, thanks a lot.

KENWORTHY: Thank you very much.

CURWOOD: Tom Kenworthy writes about politics and the environment for the Washington Post.



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