WHEN he talks about the Endangered Species Act, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt uses words like "transcendent," "visionary," and "passionate." It's the one piece of federal legislation, he says, that has the potential to fundamentally change the way Americans view and make use of natural resources.
During his first few months on the job, Mr. Babbitt - the overseer of some half-billion acres of federal land - has had to wrestle with lawmakers and special interests over an agenda for reforming federal land management that is more ambitious than anything seen in Washington for at least two decades.
He has won some initial fights and acquiesced on others. But in an interview here last week, Babbitt demonstrated no lack of enthusiasm. "It'll be a banner year for resource reform," he predicts.
While most public lands in his domain are in the West - national parks, wilderness, wildlife refuges, the arid territory bypassed by homesteaders a century ago - his responsibility to protect endangered species gives him power nationwide. His job, as he sees it, is to convey a vision of protecting ecosystems while working with families and communities dependent on natural resources such as minerals, timber, and forage for livestock.
His main tool for doing this is the Endangered Species Act of 1973, up for reauthorization in Congress this year. He describes the controversial measure as "transcendent, overarching ... encompassing all types of land use and development issues." And his ecosystem approach to dealing with natural habitats - as opposed to focusing on individual species - he sees as the next logical step after the establishment of the first national parks and refuges early in the century, the wilderness system in 1964, the n the strict species-protection legislation launched 20 years ago. Fencing off areas not an answer
What has been learned in recent years, he says, is that "we can't fence off such areas but have to come to grips with how we deal with them in our daily lives." He frequently uses the phrase "land ethic," which comes from his hero Aldo Leopold, the author of "A Sand County Almanac."
Such talk gives many resource-users and others opposed to environmentalism the willies. But Babbitt, a former Arizona governor who until recently headed the League of Conservation Voters, takes a very pragmatic and inclusive approach. "Common ground" is another phrase he often utters.
During what he calls "my exile in the desert" - the years between his 1988 failed run for the presidency and his recent appointment - he did much legal work for developers dealing with the Endangered Species Act. Here, he learned two things.
"I discovered the extra flexibility and reach of the act," he says. "The way in which if you get there early and have a little flexibility you can solve things by working creatively with government people."
Another "revelation," he says, was that "There were more people in the private sector trying to make the act work than there were government officials whose responsibility it was." (He makes clear here that he is "not talking about the rank-and-file government people" but "political ideologues back in Washington.") Creating a management system
As a result of his work in the private sector, and his time as governor when he successfully negotiated such tough issues as water rights, Babbitt has concluded that "There are lots of examples of good [resource] management all around."
"The question is, How do you turn those into a management system that is simple, predictable, and quantifiable?" he asks. Of the years-long debate over timber sales, grazing fees, and mining royalties, he says: "People are tired of the uncertainty. They're worn out and want some numbers they can take to the bank, literally, and get on with their lives."
His initial approach to such issues involves two things: one primarily scientific, the other largely political. First is the new National Biological Survey to gauge the health of ecosystems nationwide. This is designed to satisfy environmentalists, as well as their opponents, who argue over the number of a declining species and, therefore, whether it should be protected.
"We're using good science here," Babbitt says. "I've gotten a lot of support from conservatives who say good science would make a lot of these disputes unnecessary."
The other immediate task he has set himself is to take a hands-on role in dealing with resource-dependent communities affected by the legal decisions based on that scientific information. Babbitt describes this as "The part that's most fun of all - going out and getting people together and saying `Let's work this thing out.' " The models here are the April "forest conference" in Oregon and the more recent public hearings Babbitt chaired on public-lands grazing.
He makes it clear in such meetings - and in his congressional testimony - that he is not trying to shut down mining, ranching, and logging, as some environmentalists want. "Maintenance of biodiversity will require the careful management of habitat systems in the context of ongoing human use, including use of the biodiversity resources themselves," he said in a recent House hearing.
As for reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act, Babbitt is in no hurry to see Congress move. The law remains in force as is until lawmakers change it, and although several bills were introduced last week, no one expects a vote to come before the end of the year. Policies that balance, protect
In the interview, he said his main objective as Interior secretary will be to "get a new set of resource policies in place that move toward the sustainable, balanced use of resources in a way that's consistent with protection of ecosystems, the maintenance of riparian zones, and the protection of biodiversity."
That is a high standard, Babbitt acknowledges, but one he believes he can achieve "relying on experimentation, creativity, and goodwill. I have a passion for trying to make this thing work."