Babbitt's Daunting Task

PUBLIC access to public land - especially America's federal lands - is a right most United States citizens both cherish and take for granted. Most feel an obligation to help preserve this legacy; a relatively smaller number of Americans depend on it for their livelihood.

This latter function, achieving a delicate balance between commercialism and preservation, has been taken on in President Clinton's administration by former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, now US secretary of the interior. It is a job that has frustrated more than a few of those who have taken it on in previous administrations.

Reconciling commercial, recreational, and environmental usage not only continues to be a daunting task, but its complexity becomes more challenging as demands on the resource lands grow - as both use and abuse of these resources continue to intensify.

Secretary Babbitt's experience in Arizona, where he pushed the massive Central Water Project to completion, should prove useful. Patience and the art of compromise - but not too much - were needed to complete that undertaking, and his present assignment is certain to call for more of the same.

In fact, it has already done so.

Although savvy about Westerners' sensitivity on such matters as water use, timber cutting, mining, and cattle-grazing privileges, the new secretary got into some hot water soon after taking office by seeking to raise the fees that miners, cattlemen, lumber companies and water users are charged for exploitation of these resources. Western members of the US House and Senate rallied to their constituents' outcries, and the new fees were moderated.

Babbitt has given ground, but not given up on several other initiatives, including limiting agricultural water runoff in the Florida Everglades.

His strategy for handling the use of public lands and their resources is, in great part, an exercise in candor.

Rather than railing at those who would stymie his conservation efforts, Babbitt seeks to recruit potential adversaries to serve on advisory boards seeking ways to clarify policy on public land, water, and wildlife issues.

This is not a particularly new approach; nor is it an easy one. But it can work to the advantage of all Americans if national well-being, rather than the will of special interests, is allowed to prevail.

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