Bruce Babbitt becomes ‘wild and scenic’ developer

Published September 1, 2001

The Clinton administration’s Secretary of Interior and environmentalist icon, one-time Colorado Governor Bruce Babbitt, has changed both his career and its direction.

The 1990s’ bane of private property owners nationwide and foe of the logging, mining, and ranching industries of the Western United States, Babbitt has a reputation as an environmental purist who fought to protect “wild and scenic” American public lands and opposed development of choice private holdings.

Now, he has declared himself to be a dedicated real estate developer of some of the most priceless and pristine scenic miles of the California coast.

A “shocking disclosure”

In mid-June, Los Angeles Times reporters Kenneth Weiss and Margaret Talev provided the “shocking disclosure” (to some environmental organizations) that Babbitt has taken on two projects with special sensitivity, in association with the Latham & Watkins law firm he joined earlier this year.

First, Babbitt is to help overcome environmental activist lawsuits and other roadblocks, erected since 1992, to the construction of 3,050 homes on property in rural Ventura County, known as the Ahmanson Ranch. The L.A. Times’ reporters described the ranch as spreading “across one of Southern California’s last expanses of hillsides not yet crowded by urban sprawl.”

Second, Babbitt is to assist the Hearst Corporation in developing 83,000 acres of coastal tablelands around the late William Randolph Hearst’s famous San Simeon Castle. The terrain is mostly wild coastline land near California’s treasured scenic view of the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur.

The Hearst project is said to be a $200 million effort to clear permit approval and complete planning for providing choice private estate building sites. Involved are “83,000 acres of salt-sprayed table lands that step down from the Hearst Castle and span 18 miles of mostly wild undeveloped coast that forms the southern gateway to Big Sur.”

Hearst firm spokesmen insist Babbitt was brought in to revise earlier plans for turning San Simeon acres into a resort complex. That proposal was rejected outright by the California Coastal Commission three years ago. The new objective, they say, is to follow a more environmentally friendly path to preserve much open space while allowing well-to-do buyers to share in the vistas of the prestigious San Simeon location.

Investigation in the works?

Throughout his years as Governor of Arizona and, especially, while serving in the Clinton Cabinet, Babbitt often had to fend off critics of his family’s development of property along the approach to the Grand Canyon. At one point, in 1997-98, he publicly disassociated himself from the Babbitt family real estate enterprises after publicity focused on a possible conflict of interest for an Interior Secretary committed to prevent environmentally questionable development near the most famous National Park in his public lands domain.

Last year, Babbitt was instrumental in persuading President Clinton to declare hundreds of miles of the California coast as a National Monument, and thus largely off-limits to private development. Some environmentalists in California and politicians in Washington, DC–possibly for different reasons–are now examining the limits of that Monument designation to see whether or not it may have conveniently avoided the Ahmanson Ranch and San Simeon estates.

If a so-called “paper trail” were to suggest that Babbitt had a hand, while still in his Cabinet position, in isolating the properties of his new clients, Congress might be forced to investigate.

Meanwhile, Babbitt’s friends in the major environmental organizations are in some confusion as to how to deal with the Interior Secretary who so recently represented a hard line on their behalf . . . and who has now completely reversed his direction.

John Fulton Lewis is executive editor of Alliance for America’s Trumpet Call newsletter and contributing editor to Farm Press and other newsletters.