INTERIOR Secretary Bruce Babbitt has always been an enthusiastic cheerleader for the environment. But this week he's dropped the pompoms and is adopting the persona of an old-time circuit rider, preaching fire and damnation against political transgressors.
In visits to six states in four days, Mr. Babbitt is spotlighting what he calls ''back-room, back-door, dead-of-night'' attempts by Congress to undermine major environmental laws. It's not only the cuts affecting national parks, Indian reservations, and scientific research, he laments, but also lawmakers' efforts to attach legislative riders to budget bills that change federal-lands policies without public debate.
''This is the worst onslaught on public lands and the environment in this century,'' Babbitt declared in an interview this week.
Among the offenses, he sees: opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil-drilling, allowing miners to take low-cost title to federal land, blocking the listing of endangered species, imposing a ''racially motivated'' 34 percent tax on Indian gambling revenues, halting proposed grazing reforms, and increasing by one-third the logging of Alaska's Tongass National Forest.
National parks have become the focus of debate as well.
After 10 years of wrangling, lawmakers last year passed the California Desert Protection Act, which protects 1.5 million acres in the Mojave Desert. But congressional budget-writers this year stripped all but $1 from the National Park Service's funds to manage the desert preserve, giving the money instead to the Bureau of Land Management - an agency historically more interested in utilizing natural resources than protecting them.
Particularly sneaky, say Babbitt and other critics, has been the effort to create a special commission to consider closing some of the 314 national monuments, historic sites, scenic trails, recreation areas, and other units in the national park system.
The House on Sept. 20 voted down the proposal 231 to 180, with 67 Republicans joining Democrats to defeat the measure. But later that night, members of the House Resources Committee attached it to the Interior Department's budget bill. ''This is an incredible misuse of the legislative process,'' Babbitt says.
Supporters of such tactics say they're just defending their turf against the Clinton administration's ''war on the West,'' which has taken the form of proposed reforms to policies affecting ranchers, loggers, miners, and water users.
IF one looks at his legislative record, Babbitt concedes, there have been far more defeats than victories. None of the land-use reforms has been enacted. And the one major win (the California Desert Protection Act) has become a victim of budget maneuvers.
There have been numerous unheralded advances in land and species protection, the Interior secretary says, but they have involved cooperation rather than litigation or new legislation. Examples include Southeast forests, the Florida Everglades, and the Sacramento River Delta in California.
Not all congressional Republicans and their Democratic allies are anti-environment, Babbitt acknowledges. Moderate lawmakers (including many Eastern Republicans) are pushing legislative alternatives retaining conservation policies on public lands. ''My sense is that there's a move toward moderation,'' Babbitt says. ''But ironically it's only made matters worse by driving [hard-core environmental opponents] away from the sunshine of public debate into this back-alley reconciliation process.'' (Reconcilia tion is the attempt to find spending cuts and new revenues so that overall budget targets are met.)
The Interior Department budget bill worked out by House and Senate conferees last week now moves to the full House and Senate. Unless the bill is changed, Vice President Al Gore said last week that President Clinton will veto it.
IN anticipation of the showdown, Babbitt this week travels to several regions to ''highlight some of the mischief that's going on.'' His trip includes New York City's Wall Street to publicize how companies can extract hardrock minerals from public land without paying royalties; Orlando, Fla., to warn of the measure preventing the listing of any more endangered species; Chattahoochee National Park near Atlanta (Speaker Newt Gingrich's district) to talk about potential park closures; Lake St. Clair, Mich. , to condemn the limiting of public accountability for toxic polluters; and the Oneida Indian reservation in Green Bay, Wis., where he will chide lawmakers for cutting native-American programs.
Babbitt's ''circuit rider tour'' will finish in St. Louis, where he intends to preach about ''America's tradition of stewardship for public lands and resources.'' As he has done in the past, Babbitt is likely to note that it was a Republican president - Theodore Roosevelt - who began that tradition.