Unfond memories of Bruce Babbitt

Published April 1, 2001

We are all extremely fortunate that Gale Norton has become the new Secretary of the Interior of the United States. Her record shows a person who desires to preserve our nation’s lands for the benefit of all creatures–but with humans placed appropriately at the top of the list. It will serve us well to remember that such a philosophy was not held by our past Secretary of Interior.

Secret biodiversity plan exposed

Bruce Babbitt, appointed Secretary of the Interior by President Clinton in January 1993, was a strong advocate of the Global Biodiversity Treaty, centerpiece of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. That treaty, at just 18 pages long, provided that a Global Biodiversity Assessment was to be the actual basis for the law. Some observers feared the 18-page document was just the tip of a frightening iceberg, but its supporters denied that a more complete Global Biodiversity Assessment existed.

On September 30, 1994 the Senate was scheduled to vote on ratifying the treaty–the 18-page document. Fortunately Tom McDonnell, of the American Sheep Industry Association, had just obtained a copy of the secret United Nations 1,140-page Global Biodiversity Assessment. He presented it to Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who immediately removed the treaty from consideration by the Senate. It never has been ratified by Congress.

Even after the secret U.N. document was exposed, President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development continued to support the unratified Global Biodiversity Assessment. The Council members included Bruce Babbitt, Jay Hair (National Wildlife Federation), John Adams (Natural Resources Defense Council), Fred Krupp (Environmental Defense Fund), John Sawhill (Nature Conservancy), Mike McClosky (Sierra Club), and Carol Browner (EPA Administrator).

Building an ecological empire?

Babbitt designed, but never was able to fully implement, a National Biological Survey that would “produce a starting point for the long-term monitoring of ecosystems.” Because “ecosystems” were not defined, his proposal struck many as deliberately meaningless.

Babbitt’s attempt to establish an ecological empire was sidetracked in October 1993 by the House of Representatives. They were bothered by one of the proposed Survey’s goals: to curtail human activities on private property, as well as on public lands. Members of Congress worried the Survey would allow hundreds of plant and animal species to be deemed “endangered,” and that private property would be classified as “critical habitat” where human activities could be greatly restricted.

Babbitt (in a Rolling Stones interview) compared property ownership to slavery and said he wanted “a new land ethic that would be about discarding the concept of property.”

In 1993, Babbitt asked Congress to approve a proposal that would have excluded the National Biological Survey from Freedom of Information Act requirements. If approved, the proposal would have meant citizens would have no access to NBS reports regarding their own property. Babbitt also requested that no peer review of his Survey’s reports be required, and that volunteers from the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Friends of the Earth, etc., be paid to inspect private property for him.

The House promptly rejected all three of those requests, but it did agree to amend the NBS program in one respect: It passed an amendment requiring that written permission be obtained from property owners before Babbitt’s agents could trespass on private property. Very deep cuts in Babbitt’s budget requests for this project followed.

Babbitt responded by shifting personnel assignments throughout the Department of Interior. He transferred 1,180 research scientists from the Fish & Wildlife Service to National Biological Survey work. Even without congressional approval, the National Biological Survey eventually had 1,850 employees, four “ecoregional offices,” 13 research centers, over 60 cooperative research units, and 100 field stations.

Congress considered axing the entire National Biological Survey, saving taxpayers about $167 million a year. Babbitt changed the name from the National Biological Survey to the National Biological Service, and referred to the change as “part of a strategy to save this embattled agency.”

The House Appropriations Committee took appropriate action in September 1996, eliminating the National Biological Service. The program continued to exist only under the auspices of the U.S. Geological Survey, under the name “Life Sciences Research Service.” Its budget was cut to $112 million. “None of the funds may be used to conduct surveys on private property or administer volunteer programs or be used for any activity that was not previously authorized,” said Congress.

From species to ecosystems

Not satisfied with the powers granted to his agency under the Endangered Species Act, Babbitt proposed shifting the Interior Department’s focus from protecting so-called endangered species to seeking “long-term protection of whole ecosystems and all of their inhabitants.” He explained, “That would protect all populations in the ecosystem, even if none are rare or endangered.”

“Ecosystem management” was simply another ruse for imposing massive federal land-use regulations. Babbitt’s cronies at the World Wildlife Fund, Nature Conservancy, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and World Bank set their sights on saving “endangered ecosystems,” rather than just individual species.

But what, in fact, are “ecosystems”? During a joint hearing before the 103rd Congress, Babbitt was asked by Representative Jay Dickey (R-Arkansas): “In your mind, Secretary Babbitt, what is an ecosystem, how will one be defined, and how will you differentiate one from another?”

Babbitt answered: “To some degree, an ecosystem is in the eye of the beholder.” He later elaborated: “An ecosystem might be a watershed, a river basin, an estuary, a forest–it could be a unit of desert. It could be the entire biosphere. On the other hand, it might be the organisms on a Petri plate.

“We usually think of life as extending from the depths of the ocean to perhaps the top of the stratosphere, 25,000 feet up,” Babbitt continued. “An ecosystem could be that inclusive.”

Babbitt could have pointed to hundreds or thousands of “endangered ecosystems” defined so broadly. Property owners could have been evicted from, or prevented from developing, any lands encompassing such “ecosystems.” If only Congress would have approved, Babbitt could have revamped the Endangered Species Act, calling it the “Endangered Ecosystem Act.”

Fortunately, clearer thinking prevailed. The National Research Council pointed out that: (1) there is no agreed-upon classification system for ecosystems; (2) no accepted list of ecosystem attributes exists; (3) no protocols for sampling, measuring, and recording data on ecosystems are defined; and (4) scientists cannot predict which species and which interactions are key to determining the makeup and location of ecosystems.

The General Accounting Office observed, “ecosystems change constantly in time and space. Regardless of human activities, the planet displays an endless series of overlapping, intermingling, constantly-changing ecosystems.”

To protect “ecosystems,” Bruce Babbitt apparently intended to radically alter the National Park system, keeping most people off the trails, closing the campgrounds, and making it difficult for visitors even to gain entrance into the Parks.

In Glacier National Park, Montana, Babbitt proposed the magnificent Many Glacier Hotel “not be replaced if a catastrophic event destroys the structure.” That hotel, built in 1916, is listed as a Natural Historic Landmark, but Babbitt wanted it (and all nearby campgrounds, stores, restaurants, and other public conveniences) removed. Doing so, said Babbitt, would establish a “natural corridor” along which wild animals might migrate from one valley to another. No matter that studies reported in Science News and elsewhere have documented that wildlife seldom use such corridors when they are available.

In Yosemite National Park, Babbitt wanted most automobiles restricted from entering the Valley. In March 2000 he announced his plan to close campgrounds, remove two bridges and their roads, and force the superintendent to live outside of the Park. He proposed a fleet of 348 buses, at a cost of $214 million, to bring visitors into Yosemite Valley from distant towns.

Environmental groups opposed Babbitt’s schemes. Famed environmentalist David Brower (founder of Friends of the Earth) wrote, “Secretary Babbitt has forgotten the National Parks Act, the National Environmental Protection Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and what is required by recent court decisions.” Ignoring all opposition, Babbitt nevertheless initiated a Yosemite bus service last May, with only seven buses (at a cost of $1.25 million for the year).

Gone, but not forgotten

The administration in Washington has now changed. Bruce Babbitt has become a lobbyist for a Washington, DC law firm and in January joined the board of the World Wildlife Fund. He should not be forgotten, lest the nation fall into the grasp of another such individual who holds no respect for human values.

Glacier and Yosemite and other National Parks can again be available for visitors the world over to admire and enjoy! Americans can rest a little easier, knowing their property rights are more secure than they were since Babbitt’s appointment eight years ago.

It will certainly be a great relief for Americans to not have quite so many extreme environmentalists, including Bruce Babbitt and Al Gore, kicking almost everyone else around!

J. Gordon Edwards is emeritus professor of biology at San Jose State University.