Secretary Babbitt Bids Farewell To Interior Staff

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, January 11, 2001 (ENS) - Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt bid an emotional farewell today to several hundred members of his staff, taking them on a "voyage of nostalgia" that fused anecdotal humor and institutional pride to highlight his eight year stint as one of the top environmental policy makers in the outgoing Clinton administration.

Speaking at Interior Department headquarters in Washington, Babbitt told his staff - many of whom will stay on during the incoming Bush administration - that "every American should be proud of what you do for our country."

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Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has served under President Bill Clinton for nearly eight years (Photo courtesy Office of the Secretary)

Babbitt, whose tenure as Interior Secretary will come to a close when President-elect George W. Bush is sworn into office on January 20, joked that he did not want to rush through his departing remarks because "I don't want to go out to the street."

"It's been great," Babbitt said of his stint as the nation's 47th Secretary of the Interior. "It's been the crowning professional experience of my entire life," said the former Arizona governor.

Babbitt said he did not want to say "goodbye" to his staff because he wanted the keep the "memory bright" and the "content real" regarding the Interior Department's many accomplishments during his eight years at the helm.

As the nation's principal conservation agency, the Interior Department governs a host of federal agencies, including the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Minerals Management Service, the Office of Surface Mining, the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Geological Survey. All told, the department is responsible for the administration and management of some 700 million acres of land, far and away the biggest land base of any department in the federal government.

BABBITT TO JOIN "LOYAL AMERICAN OPPOSITION" IN WASHINGTON

Babbitt said he plans to write a book about his experiences as Interior Secretary, but joked that he will not reap the kind of "seven figure advance" that First Lady and incoming New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton will garner for her memoirs.

"It looks like there will be an advance that will probably pay the mortgage for three or four or five months," Babbitt said.

Babbitt said that he and his wife Hattie will keep their principal residence in Washington, because "the large policy issues inevitably come back to the nation's capital."

In a remark that drew the loudest and longest applause of his farewell address, Babbitt promised that he is "not going to desert any of the [environmental] issues" that he cares about, and he vowed to assume a leading role in what he dubbed the "loyal American opposition."

Babbitt was referring to the campaign that environmentalists are mounting against Bush and Gale Norton, the President-elect's nominee to become Secretary of the Interior. Norton has been sharply criticized by conservation groups over her ties to James Watt, who was arguably the most anti-environmental Interior Secretary in the nation's history.

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James Watt, who served as Interior Secretary for less than three years under President Ronald Reagan, was sharply criticized by environmental groups (Photo courtesy Interior Department)

Conservation groups are opposed to Norton's push to have the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge opened to oil and gas exploration, and they fear that she will allow states to roll back other environmental protections that were put in place to safeguard the nation's land, air and water.

SHARP WORDS FOR NORTON, BUSH TEAM

Babbitt said that he has written to Norton, congratulating her for having the opportunity to head up a "great department." Babbitt said he told Norton that he is doing everything in his power to insure that there will be a smooth transition of power, and he pledged to help Bush's Interior Secretary designate in any way he can.

But Babbitt sharply rebuked the incoming Bush administration over its pledge to boost oil, gas and coal exploration on the nation's public lands, calling the initiative "not so much about energy production as it is just outright hostility to conservation values." Babbitt said the Bush team is "starting off in a very unfortunate way" by equating its energy policy with "ripping up wildlife refuges and trashing forests and pulling apart the fabric of the conservation tradition."

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Bruce Babbitt on a hike in the mountains (Photo courtesy Office of the Secretary)
"I hope that that doesn't continue. It's not necessary," said Babbitt. "Every administration comes in with its priorities and I understand that. But what we've proven in the last eight years is that we can be attentive to all of the needs of this nation."

To make his point, Babbitt compared the Clinton administration's environmental and energy records to those compiled by presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, who occupied the White House from 1981 to 1993.

Babbitt said that the incoming Bush/Cheney team has advocated the same type of "bust it wide open approach" to oil and gas exploration that was practiced by former Presidents Reagan and Bush, neither of whom created any new national monuments, national parks, or habitat conservation plans.

Babbitt contrasted that legacy with the record compiled by the Clinton administration, which has established some 20 new national monuments, scores of new parks and wildlife refuges, and millions of acres of habitat conservation areas.

However, Babbitt pointed out that the Clinton administration leased more acres of public land for oil and gas exploration than the Reagan and Bush administrations did combined.

"I would hope that would provide some perspective," Babbitt said.

Babbitt blasted the incoming Bush administration's stated goal of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration, dismissing the initiative as "just an ideological assault on our environmental accomplishments." He noted that there are trillions of cubic feet of natural gas on lands already leased to energy companies in the region, but that the companies have not seen fit to tap those resources for export to the United States.

ANWR

The Bush administration has advocated opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration, an initiative widely decried by environmental groups (Photo courtesy ANWR)

Babbitt told the auditorium full of Interior Department staff members that he would keep fighting for the causes that he believes in, and he asked them to do the same. He characterized his departing remarks as a "voyage of nostalgia," and he began by sharing some anecdotes from his eight years at the helm of the 80,000 person department.

A NOSTALGIC LOOK BACK

Babbitt, who as secretary frequently took part in local land management projects, recalled the dose of humility that he had to endure when he announced his intention to join government firefighters on the front lines during the 1993 summer wildfire season.

"Some faceless bureaucrat looked me I the eye and had the temerity to say, 'Well, are you qualified?'" Babbitt recalled. "I said, 'Well yes, of course I'm qualified - I fought fires when I was in high school and college, and I know all about that.'"

"He hooked at me and said, 'That's not adequate,'" Babbitt continued. "I said, 'Do you know who's in charge around here?' And he said, 'Well, I'm in charge of fire certification.'"

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Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt on the fire line (Photo courtesy Office of the Secretary)

Babbitt recalled how the Interior Department staff member had told him that in order to get certified to go on the fire lines, he had to attend the department's "fire school" in Boise, Idaho, for three weeks. Not having the time to do that, the cabinet secretary received training at his office in Washington every Saturday for two months.

"I finally got the certificate. Now I had to pass physical," Babbitt recalled.

Babbitt, having failed a test designed to measure his stamina, asked the examiner if there were other alternatives.

"There was a long pause and he said, 'Yeah, we have a special test for the old guys,'" Babbitt recalled.

"I say that out of profound respect for the bureaucracy," Babbitt said. "It's really important to do things by the numbers around here."

With that, Babbitt launched in to describing a series of initiatives, programs and policies that came to define his tenure. The first: fire management.

"Why has Interior come to be perceived as the leader in fire management and fire policy? It has nothing to do with Los Alamos, I assure you," quipped Babbitt, referring to the prescribed burn that raged out of control this summer, destroying hundreds of homes and threatening an Energy Department nuclear weapons laboratory.

"What it does have to do with is that we have managed to collect up the disparate groups in this department and bring them together."

Beginning in 1995, the Interior Department began to see wildfire management as its "natural function," Babbitt said. That vision, Babbitt said, led to the production of a wildland fire policy that the Secretary called "the most significant fire policy document of the last half century."

"THINKING OUTSIDE OF THE BOX"

Babbitt next lauded the Interior Department's contribution in shaping the $7.8 billion restoration project for the Florida Everglades, which was approved by Congress late last year. The Interior Department got involved in the matter in 1993, Babbitt recalled, and had to find a way to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which he said had established "the biggest most powerful political machine in all of the South."

Many people are not aware of the Interior Department's involvement in one of the Clinton administration's biggest environmental initiatives - the plan to protect 80 million acres of pristine coral reef ecosystems lying northwest of the Hawaiian Islands. The area, home to a vast array of fish, invertebrates, birds, sea turtles and marine mammals, was once administered by the U.S. Navy.

Babbitt said that Interior Department officials became involved in the matter because they did not allow themselves to be constrained by institutional and bureaucratic barriers.

"Nobody was doing anything about the most immediate issue of ocean protection, and that's coral reefs," Babbitt said. "We threw all our cards on the table and said, 'wow, this is for us.'"

Babbitt recalled how he and other Interior Department officials approached a U.S. Navy Admiral "in the dark of the night" and said, "Why don't you just leave it to us?"

"So help me they did," beamed Babbitt, noting the coral reef reserve that Clinton established last month. "That's an Interior [Department] initiative."

Babbitt also highlighted the Interior Department's efforts to resolve the imbroglio over the waters of the Colorado River, and the plan to save the salmon of the Pacific Northwest.

Babbitt described the Interior Department's reliance on the Antiquities Act, which President Clinton has used to designate a host of new national monuments throughout the American West. Babbitt said that the reason that the 1906 act has been "resuscitated" and has received such "extraordinary support" from the American public is that Interior Department officials have been "thinking outside of the box."

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President Clinton announcing the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument last year. Critics have vowed to roll back the designation of it and other national monuments. (Photo courtesy White House Council on Environmental Quality)

Babbitt and Clinton have been sharply criticized for using the Antiquities Act to designate the national monuments. Congressional Republicans have vowed to overturn the monument designations and restore the land to its previous management status.

CASINO/FUNDRAISING INVESTIGATION LOW POINT OF TENURE

Babbitt also recalled another highly controversial chapter that plagued him as Interior Secretary: the Independent Counsel investigation which probed allegations that he lied to Congress regarding his decision to deny an operating license to a casino on an Indian reservation in Wisconsin. Independent Counsel Carol Elder ultimately decided not to indict Babbitt as a result of the probe, which was linked to allegations of campaign finance abuse during the 1996 election.

Babbitt decried the probe as a political stunt that was designed to "jam up the machinery of this department, and to keep us from doing our job." "It was pretty awful. It really was designed simply to stop us in mid-course," Babbitt said.

Babbitt said that there will always be a "special place [his] heart" for the Interior Department employees who labored to produce the "millions and millions" of documents demanded by Congress. Those employees, he said, were "harassed in a quasi-criminal manner."

More information on Bruce Babbitt can be found on the Interior Department's website, located at: http://www.doi.gov.