THE biggest surprise in "the education of Bruce Babbitt" during his first five months as secretary of the interior: Members of Congress and their staff members "micromanage" his department at nearly every level.
"I was absolutely astonished at the degree to which Congress is present in my daily life," he said yesterday at a Monitor breakfast.
Congressional distrust of the Interior Department during the Reagan and Bush years was so intense, says Secretary Babbitt, that his budget now has "a star and asterisk by every dollar" - designating conditions for spending it and which subcommittees oversee it.
"I think I've been viewed on Capitol Hill as the advance agent of some kind of liberation force," he jokes.
The biggest controversies of his term at Interior will center around the Endangered Species Act, Babbitt says. "We have to make it work," he says. Americans cannot credibly ask Chinese to save tigers, for example, if they cannot save species in the US.
The act concerns more than just threatened species of animals.
The Spotted Owl started the lumbering-versus-conservation debate in the Cascade Mountains, "but if a creature at the top of the ecosystem is in trouble, that's a wake-up call about the whole system."
Babbitt is seeking to put scientists from different agencies together to work out plans for keeping ecosystems viable. Ten options for the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest are now on President Clinton's desk.