Last month, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt came here to a private ranch near Yellowstone and proudly announced that the federal government had spent $13 million to buy crucial winter habitat for the national park's beleaguered bison.
Then just last week, down in New Mexico, Uncle Sam was back shopping again, this time agreeing to pay $101 million for the 95,000-acre Baca cattle ranch, a haven for one of the largest elk herds in the country.
For observers keeping track of these blockbuster acquisitions, the strategy of spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars to add to the already vast amount of public land represents a bold move by the Clinton administration. It also illustrates a fundamental political shift from the Reagan years of the 1980s, when the Sagebrush Rebellion - a revolt against restrictions on public land - spread across the West.
These days, opinion polls show that Americans - Republicans as well as Democrats - want government to protect the nation's most striking landscapes be they backyard wood lots or nooks of remote wilderness most people will never see. And Secretary Babbitt, embracing this change, sees a fleeting opportunity to craft a lasting legacy.
Moreover, pollsters say, preserving nature could be a major campaign issue in a presidential election for the first time.
Setting aside money for protection of important wildlife habitat and open space to combat urban sprawl "shouldn't be a political issue," said Babbitt in an interview with the Monitor. "There is clearly public support for what we are trying to do, but if we can't get it done, then it will become a political issue in the next presidential election."
Among the major land acquisitions pursued by the administration since 1997:
*A $7.8 billion proposal to restore the Florida Everglades includes a land-purchase component aimed at increasing freshwater storage - to improve the ecosystem and augment city water supplies.
*The $380 million purchase of 7,500 acres in northern California to create the Headwaters reserve. The US government contributed $250 million to protect one of the last groves of giant redwoods.
*A $62 million federal buyout of mining claims on 25,000 acres surrounding the New World Mine near Yellowstone. Nearby, the government also spent several million dollars in a land swap to protect grizzly bears, elk, and moose.
Yet the Republican-led Congress - and many conservative groups - remain opposed to increasing the portfolio of federal land holdings throughout the US.
"Adding any more land to the federal estate is a crazy idea," says Holly Lippke Fretwell of the Political Economy Research Center, a think tank devoted to private-property rights.
Ms. Fretwell adds that the federal government already owns too much land and has done a poor job of managing the acreage already under its care. To that end, Fretwell's organization this month published a proposal to turn federal management of the controversial Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument in Utah over to a special land trust.
The vastness of federal lands also concerns some in Congress. Sen. Craig Thomas (R) of Wyoming "is concerned about the idea of increasing federal land holdings when the amount of land under federal control in a state like Wyoming is already over 50 percent," says Dan Kunsman, Senator Thomas's spokesman.
Thomas supported the recent deal to buy part of the Royal Teton Ranch near Yellowstone on behalf of bison and elk, but he has written a bill in Congress that would allow no net gain in the total acreage of federal land - more than half a billion acres - now in the West. Other Republicans have tacked antienvironmental riders onto the Clinton administration's $1 billion Lands Legacy bill, hoping to make it unpassable.
Efforts to tightly constrict the volume of federal land purchases began with the Reagan administration in 1981. Led by Interior Secretary James Watt, President Reagan supported the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion. It caused an uproar by calling for the selling off of public lands to vested private interests.
Secretary Watt also led efforts to restrict use of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a 35-year-old trust account that generates $900 million annually from royalties collected on off-shore oil and natural gas development.
The fund was created to underwrite the purchase of wildlife habitat and creation of urban parks. However, during the past two decades, both Congress and the White House have diverted a large portion of the fund away from conservation projects into balancing the federal budget.
Now with an budget surplus, the administration through its Lands Legacy plan would mandate that all LWCF money go toward its intended purpose.
"To get the Lands Legacy initiative passed would mean an extraordinary bipartisan commitment," says Eliot Diringer with the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, which drafted the measure. Many say the outcome of debates over LWCF funding will be a litmus test for voters to gauge candidates' greenness.
Not a partisan issue
One recent Zogby International poll of GOP voters in five important primary states - New Hampshire, Iowa, New York, California, and South Carolina - indicates that the desire for landscape protection transcends party lines.
Environmental concerns were ranked as high in importance as family values, and were deemed by Republican voters to be more important than restricting abortion and cutting taxes.
Using public money to acquire dwindling open space and to purchase development rights is a tool embraced by the public, says Jane Danowitz, executive director of Americans For Our Heritage, citing other recent surveys. "Look at Salt Lake City, Boise, [Idaho], Denver, Albuquerque, [N.M.], Portland, [Ore.], and Seattle," she says. "Elected leaders in all of those cities have identified urban sprawl as one of the greatest threats to their communities."
For Babbitt, a native Arizonan, the Lands Legacy initiative affords him the opportunity to influence his region in a way that persists long after he is gone.
"In the West, we have extraordinary landscapes but they are not complete," he says. "When many of the boundaries of our national parks and forests were established years ago, we didn't have the science to tell us more land was needed. Now we have the science and we need to act on it."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society