A quiet swan song among wolves and bears

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt visits Yellowstone to cap eight years as steward of the nation's lands, when he was both vilified and revered.

With moisture in his eyes, US Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt made a promise this past weekend in a place where his own conservation heroes - Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold - walked during the past century.

"I intend to be a very public private citizen," he said.

Mr. Babbitt, whose 500-million-acre domain as Interior secretary stretched across an area larger than many European countries, could have selected any natural backdrop in America to mark the end of his long career in public service.

But he chose to sing a quiet swan song among howling wolves he once carried with his own hands into the nation's oldest national park. That he returned here to spend a frigid afternoon in Yellowstone's picturesque Lamar Valley is a reflection of Babbitt's values.

Many see the gesture as a retrospective commentary on his past eight years as a cabinet chief for Bill Clinton. To the awestruck Yellowstone tourists who approached him as he peered through a high-powered spotting scope at a grizzly bear, Babbitt himself is an icon. They believe his crusades for two dozen new national monuments show foresight.

"He has been the first Interior secretary to bring to light the fact that we are living beyond the environmental budget of the land," says Mike Finley, the Yellowstone Park superintendent.

But Babbitt's preservationist views have clashed sharply with miners, loggers, and ranchers whose identities are rooted in the era of Manifest Destiny. And they fear his visit to Yellowstone is a harbinger of a future role as an environmental foil in his native West.

For the next year, Babbitt is prohibited from formally lobbying the Interior Department on proposed policies. But he doesn't intend to quietly fade away. Already, he's told the incoming Bush administration that he will fight efforts to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural-gas drilling.

Among what Babbitt considers his most satisfying achievements as Interior secretary: Staving off Congress's attempts to weaken the Endangered Species Act; tearing down harmful dams; having a say in the Northwest Forest Plan that spared millions of acres of ancient trees; helping to broker the $8 billion restoration of the Florida Everglades; passage of the California Desert Protection Act; and stopping a megascale gold mine from opening on the border of Yellowstone.

But placed in a category all by itself is his personal involvement with the return of wolves to Yellowstone and central Idaho, in what scientists say is the continent's most successful restoration of a large wildlife predator.

"The wolf is the preeminent cultural symbol of our attitude toward the natural world," Babbitt says. "It is the most remarked upon and remembered impression of my time in office."

Despite opposition from ranchers, in 1994 Babbitt ordered the reintroduction of 14 Canadian wolves into Yellowstone. Today, even livestock groups admit that bringing wolves back has been a huge success, attracting crowds to the national park and producing far fewer incidents of livestock predation than naysayers claimed would occur.

"We have an ethical obligation to learn to live in harmony with our surroundings and destroy the old demonic myths," Babbitt says.

More than ever, he says he is convinced of the need for the federal government to occasionally step in and make hard decisions for posterity. And while he doesn't regret public service, Babbitt believes he can do more now as a private citizen. "My advice to young people is that public service is a terrific career. But be sure to buy lawyer insurance on the way in."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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