Compromising on The Environment

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WHEN Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt took office a year ago, the landlord for some 500 million acres of public land vowed to ``take on all the special interests in the country all at the same time.''

By this he meant what University of Colorado law professor Charles Wilkinson calls the ``lords of yesterday'' - the laws and polices dating back to the 19th century that deal with public land and natural resources.

``Of this, you can be certain,'' Babbitt said. ``1993 will be the year of reform for public-land-use issues.'' Aldo Leopold was his ``land ethic'' guru, and the Endangered Species Act would be a major tool in shifting from a management philosophy of ``multiple use'' (everybody gets something) to ``dominant public use that gives priority to recreation, wildlife, and watershed uses.''

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It was a direct and very personal challenge to miners, ranchers, timber interests, and major water users across the West, who are small in number but mighty in myth and political influence.

A year later, it would seem that Babbitt hasn't gotten very far. Grazing fees remain at a level many experts say is far below market rate. There are no royalties on hard-rock mining, and miners still can acquire federal land for next to nothing. The administration has a plan to balance logging and species protection in the Pacific Northwest, but it remains to be seen whether it will pass legal muster. In the process, Babbitt and crew have managed to offend just about everybody. Resource users are fighting back through the courts and their friends in Congress. Environmentalists, who had expected a much ``greener'' administration than they'd battled over the previous 12 years, are more than a little disappointed.

``Environmentalists Frustrated With Clinton Approach,'' reads the headline in a recent issue of the Sierra Club's newsletter. ``In Search for Compromise, Are Ecosystems Being Sacrificed?''

Perhaps his early pronouncements about ``a new American land ethic,'' about ``the imperative to live more lightly and productively on the land'' were intended mainly to get peoples' attention. For Babbitt has shown a great tendency to compromise during his first year in office - especially regarding his legislative favorite, the Endangered Species Act. Whether it was the red-cockaded woodpecker in the Southeast, the gnatchatcher in California, or the spotted owl in Oregon, this administration has worked hard to protect both habitat and local economies - which sounds an awful lot like ``multiple use.''

On that most myth-laden of wide-open-spaces issues - cattle ranching - Babbitt has had to do a lot of back-pedaling. At first, grazing fees were going to be raised unilaterally as part of the administration's budget. That galvanized Western senators (including a number of Democrats) who fumed and filibustered.

After more public hearings around the West, ten days ago Babbitt announced a new policy which will raise grazing fees over the next three years and prod ranchers to take better care of the federal land they consider their own. Once again, neither side is pleased. Sheep and cattle ranchers are grumbling over having to eventually pay $3.96 a month for every cow or five sheep they graze on public land. Richard Hoppe of the Wilderness Society called it ``a slight tweaking of the status quo.''

What makes both sides nervous is that Babbitt wants all interested parties to be part of the local decisionmaking on range management. Ranchers liked the status quo, which was mainly themselves deciding such things in cozy councils. Environmentalists preferred a stronger presence by federal regulators.

Babbitt came to head up the Interior Department after several years as the activist president of the League of Conservation Voters. But as governor of Arizona before that, he was known for bringing all sides on tough issues like water to the conference room and locking the door until resolution was found.

So maybe it's not surprising that a year that started out with zealousness has ended with an emphasis on compromise.

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