Defensible Boundaries: An Interview with Bruce Babbitt

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About Former Governor and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt

Bruce BabbittBruce Babbitt served as U.S. Secretary of the Interior from 1993 to 2001, as Governor of Arizona from 1978 to 1987, and as Attorney General of Arizona from 1975 to 1978.

He is the son of a northern Arizona ranching family and was exposed to Arizona’s cultural and natural heritage from an early age. His father had helped to found the Arizona Wildlife Federation and the Arizona Game Protective Association.

With degrees in geology, geophysics, and law, Bruce Babbitt was elected to statewide office on his first foray into elective politics in Arizona at the age of 36. In 1978 he became governor, was twice reelected to that office and served nine years in all. In 1988, Babbitt was a candidate for the presidency of the United States and from 1988-1993 he practiced law and served as head of the League of Conservation Voters.

As Secretary of the Interior from 1993-2001, Babbitt was perhaps the best-qualified person ever to hold that position. He combined experience and enthusiasm with a deep commitment to environmental protection and restoration. He tackled some of the most complex and controversial issues in public land management, resulting in long overdue reforms to mining, grazing, and endangered species law, and the protection of millions of acres of federal land from development through the designation of several national monuments. He used his skills as an effective public advocate and teacher to counter the inevitable criticism from political opponents, and he was instrumental in defeating the environmental rollback propositions of the Republican’s 1994 manifesto, Contract with America.

Cities in the Wilderness, by Bruce BabbittAmong the highlights of his tenure are bringing peace to California’s water wars with the historic CalFed Bay Delta Accord; shaping the old growth forest plan in the Pacific Northwest; drafting interagency plans to restore the ecosystem of South Florida, the Everglades and Florida Bay, creating the largest environmental restoration project in history; helping to enact the massive California Desert Protection Act, the largest land protection bill ever enacted in the lower 48 states; forging new legislation for protection of national wildlife refuges; returning entrance fees and concessions back into the national parks that generated them; helping to preserve the incomparable old-growth Headwaters Forest; and negotiating the largest state-federal land swap in the history of the lower 48 states in order to create the two-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and other parks in Utah

Babbitt’s other restoration actions include being the first Interior Secretary to restore fire to its natural role in the wild and to tear down dams, restoring rivers flowing into the Atlantic and the Pacific. He was personally involved in demonstrating catch and release programs for endangered trout and salmon to highlight how restoring native fish habitat restores economies.

At the end of his term, he provided recommendations to President Clinton which led to the creation of 21 new monuments protected under the Antiquities Act, resulting in several million acres of spectacular resources on federal land coming under new conservation management.

Babbitt is the author of Cities in the Wilderness: A New Vision of Land Use in America, published by Island Press in 2005, upon which most of this interview is based.

Interview What exactly do you mean by a “city in the wilderness”?

Bruce Babbitt: The boundaries that once separated our cities from the surrounding forests, farmlands, and natural landscapes are beginning to blur and disappear. Sprawl is erasing the distinction between the built environment and the natural environment. And both the quality of urban life and the integrity of our natural ecosystems are declining. Cities and natural landscapes (or wilderness) function best with a fair degree of separation, which is made possible by good land use planning.

Pine Barrens, New Jersey
Batsto River in New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve.
Photo by M. Wanner, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Is “good land use planning” something we have already, or can aspire to?

Bruce Babbitt: We have only a few examples on a large scale designed to preserve open space. Some examples can be found in Oregon, in the New Jersey Pinelands, and in Ventura County, California—places where laws require development within existing urban centers and the preservation of surrounding open spaces. One reason that we have so few examples is that federal laws encourage sprawl. These laws should be changed to encourage the preservation of open space through large scale land use planning. The book title refers to “cities,” yet is mostly about big conservation projects in rural spaces. What’s the relationship between them?

Bruce Babbitt: The book examples demonstrate how large scale land conservation projects can operate to create urban boundaries and expansion limits. The Everglades restoration project has created a de facto urban boundary along the Atlantic coast of Florida. The habitat conservation plans implemented under the Endangered Species Act have created large open spaces in and around urban areas including San Diego, Orange County, Las Vegas, Tucson and Austin. What did and did not work in restoring the Florida Everglades?

Bruce Babbitt: The keys to the Everglades success were 1) widespread public support translated into Congressional funding and 2) the positive role played by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, an agency not noted for environmental good deeds. The Corps of Engineers is increasingly responsive to public opinion, providing new opportunities for all communities to plan for restoration programs.

The Everglades success, however, has yet to be translated into an effective land use plan for those areas of central and north Florida that lie outside the Everglades ecosystem. If land use planning is always a local issue, how do we get to national policy?

Bruce Babbitt: The notion that land use is exclusively a local issue does not square with American history. The federal government has always, from the time of George Washington, shaped land use through the Homestead Act, flood control, reclamation, the interstate highway program system, and myriad other policies that promote development. What we lack in this history are parallel and complementary policies and incentives for states to engage in land use planning for the protection of our rivers and landscapes.

Catalina Mountains
The Santa Catalina Mountains in Pima County border Tucson’s northern edge.
Photo by Fred Hood, courtesy Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau. What’s your favorite example of where the Endangered Species Act has helped in land conservation?

Bruce Babbitt: Tucson is my favorite example. The process began with a development moratorium on lands occupied by the spotted owl. Then the County Supervisors decided to go beyond owl protection to enact a county-wide general plan for the protection of riparian areas, sensitive species, and core biological areas throughout the county. In effect, they created an ecosystem protection plan for the entire county: the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. What do you mean by “getting the science right” for conservation projects?

Bruce Babbitt: One problem with the Endangered Species Act is that it takes hold at the 11th hour, when a species has already declined to the brink of extinction, making it very difficult to recover the species or to protect enough habitat. If we could identify the problems early on, before the downward spiral sets in, we would have more flexibility to design land use plans that accommodate both development and protection. Ecosystems are complex, and understanding them requires a stronger commitment to fund and carry out the necessary research. What can America learn from Las Vegas in terms of growth and development?

Bruce Babbitt: There are two important lessons from Las Vegas. First, drawing sensible urban boundaries does not choke off growth—Nevada (read: Las Vegas) is the fastest growing state in the nation. Second, establishing urban boundaries is as much an art as a science, requiring a good understanding of local conditions and always allowing some time and space for the cities to grow into their ultimate boundaries. You write that “Open space proposals that can be stigmatized as limiting growth are not likely to succeed.” Why is that?

Bruce Babbitt: If it’s an either/or proposition, where you can only have one or the other, then voters will say, “I’d like open space, but jobs and income are more important, so we will sacrifice open space.” That’s why the phrase “growth boundaries” is so unhelpful; it sounds like limiting growth, rather than providing open space. The smart growth movement is about persuading voters that open space can actually encourage growth by providing for better quality of life.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Autumn approaches in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo courtesy Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Department of Interior. What limitations did you feel as Secretary of the Interior, in terms of assembling significant open space projects?

Bruce Babbitt: Political opposition from the “property rights” groups who oppose planning and most zoning, arguing that individuals have near absolute rights to use their property as they please, irrespective of the impact on public values such as endangered species, rivers, and overall quality of life in a given community. Can the desire for energy independence coexist with the urge to preserve open space?

Bruce Babbitt: There is no such thing as “energy independence,” at least when it comes to oil and gas. The prospect of a relatively small increment in oil and gas production from public lands should be weighed against the potential for irreversible environmental damage such as would occur in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The damage from drilling on other public lands could, in many instances, be minimized by strong regulation, such as slant drilling, no roads, helicopter access, etc. This administration has relaxed or abolished nearly all environmental protections relating to energy production. You’ve titled one chapter of Cities in the Wilderness “What’s the matter with Iowa?” What is the matter with Iowa?

Bruce Babbitt: Iowa is an example of agricultural sprawl. Here, as in the Everglades and elsewhere, agriculture has been expanded to the near complete destruction of natural landscapes and river systems. federal farm subsidies and protective tariffs account for much of this unnecessary overextension and destruction of natural landscapes. The federal subsidies should be modified to encourage the restoration of tall grass prairie and natural river bottoms.

Aerial view of Mississippi River
The Mississippi River heading west, with Illinois on left and Missouri on right.
Photo by Allen Matheson, © Similarly, what’s wrong with the Mississippi River?

Bruce Babbitt: The Mississippi has been transformed into a barge channel bordered by huge levees, with running water full of pesticides, dissolved nitrogen, and fertilizers, its floodplain and bottomland forests destroyed and replaced by corn and soybeans. In the book I describe how most of this pollution and river destruction, which is occurring on many other rivers, can be reversed. Which president do you most admire in terms of conservation policy, and why?

Bruce Babbitt: Theodore Roosevelt was the first and greatest conservation president. But here is a surprise—Richard Nixon was the first and so far only president to advocate national land use planning legislation. Should we be tearing down dams all across America?

Bruce Babbitt: There are more than 75,000 dams in our country, many of them small, obsolete structures that have outlived their usefulness, and now serve only to block fish passage. We should undertake a careful assessment of every river in the land, and I am confident that we will find many structures that can no longer be justified on either economic or environmental grounds. How can local and state governments be motivated to act progressively, when it comes to protecting large-scale ecosystems?

Bruce Babbitt: It can be done with federal leadership. The history of our environmental progress, from Theodore Roosevelt through the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, national parks—virtually all of that progress has come about through national leadership and legislation that sets standards and invites and gives incentives to the states to participate. Where is the federal leadership in the rebuilding of New Orleans, and what solution do you favor for rebuilding the Louisiana Delta—especially considering the similarities with post-hurricane reconstruction and Everglades restoration following Hurricane Andrew?

Bruce Babbitt: The lack of federal leadership in rebuilding the Golf Coast is a national disgrace. The president says it’s a local issue. It’s not just a local issue. It’s a national issue that involves the management of the Mississippi River, which the federal government has been doing for 50 years, which involves the management of offshore oil and gas, which has undermined the integrity of the wetlands. Those issues cannot be dealt with by the mayor of New Orleans alone. It’s going to take national leadership to say: “What are we going to do about the infrastructure issues? What are we going to do about sea level rise?” Of Louisiana’s five million people, half live in the delta country, less than three feet above sea level. The consensus for sea-level rise from global warming is now between two and three feet. Restoration of the city and the delta has to be a national effort, and it should be guided by a national plan. Congress should charge a commission of our best scientists, engineers, and planners to assess the alternatives, draw up a regional plan, and recommend a realist course of action.

Young cattle egrets
Immature cattle egrets in Everglades National Park.
Photo courtesy South Florida Water Management District. Are big conservation projects more likely to succeed in the Western U.S. rather than the East?

Bruce Babbitt: There is still plenty to do in all parts of the country. The Everglades is but one example, for there are urgent conservation and open space issues in every region. Another case is the region surrounding Washington, D.C., where sprawl is spreading along Chesapeake Bay, into the Shenandoah Valley, and northward into Pennsylvania. What can we learn from New Jersey’s Pine Barrens preservation and land use management efforts?

Bruce Babbitt: The Pine Barrens is one of the best examples of land use planning in this country. The New Jersey Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan preserves agriculture and forests and open space, it allows for development in existing communities, and it provides economic development benefits to the rural landowners through transferable development rights. And it all came about through a federal-state partnership that could be replicated in other parts of the country. Do you have one project that you feel is your legacy?

Bruce Babbitt: The Florida Everglades restoration project: it was achieved in a hostile Congressional climate, demonstrating that public support and demand can produce results. The project simultaneously created defensible boundaries for the benefit of the coastal cities, cut back sugar agriculture, restored the national park, and reformed the Corps of Engineers, all through a large-scale land use planning process. That project has now spawned similar beginning efforts in other regions, including the Louisiana Delta, California, the Great Lakes, and Chesapeake Bay.

Header photo of deck at Everglades National Park by Henryk Sadura, courtesy Shutterstock. is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.