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Alarmed by 'Cycle of Anti-Environmentalism'

November 15, 2005|Frank Clifford | Times Staff Writer

The environment has never faced greater political peril in America than it does today, says former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

"History, however, instructs us that the trajectory of environmental protection is moving ever upward over time, even as the trend line occasionally breaks downward," Babbitt asserts in his new book "Cities in the Wilderness."

A Democrat, Babbitt ran the Interior Department for eight years under President Clinton, who in Babbitt's words "protected more acres of land and water than any of his predecessors." If parts of that legacy are in jeopardy now, as Babbitt says they are, he remains confident that the public, in time, will again demand that the federal government play a stronger role in protecting natural resources.

In his book, he examines the conservation record of the Clinton era. One failure he highlights was his inability to marshal public support for a plan to ease the threat of catastrophic flooding on the lower Mississippi River. The plan would have required removing some levees on the upper Mississippi, allowing the river to overflow its banks in undeveloped areas, thus reducing downstream flows and the potential for disaster in places such as New Orleans.

Among the successes, Babbitt cites his partnership with the Republican administration of former California Gov. Pete Wilson to design a program, dubbed CalFed, to put an end to the political wars that have raged over management of the state's largest source of fresh water -- the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

But Babbitt now says the future of that program, which tries to balance the water needs of the region's environment, agriculture and cities, is in jeopardy.

Today, Babbitt describes himself as a "free agent," dividing his time between the World Wildlife Fund, of which he is a director, and various nonprofit groups working on conservation issues ranging from the Amazon Basin to the Pacific Northwest.

Question: Critics of the Bush administration fear that much of America's legacy of environmental laws and protections is under assault. Do you agree?

Answer: We are in the worst down cycle of anti-environmentalism in the history of conservation. It's really quite striking. In this administration, they presented a friendly face of consensus-building beneath which the systematic destruction of the environmental consensus is actually without parallel.

Q. There are efforts in play in Congress to weaken both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, laws that protect wildlife and open space and give people the right to object to developments that will change their own environments. Are they in jeopardy?

A: It's hanging in the balance right now. Congress is hell-bent on destroying environmental laws. The administration is egging them on.

Q: In your book, you say the Clinton administration preserved as much land as Teddy Roosevelt. Is that part of the Clinton legacy in jeopardy?

A: The striking thing to me is the degree to which they have been tampering with the national park system. That really is, if you will, an indication -- nothing is sacred to this administration. Typically, national parks have been absolutely inviolable.

The Republicans come to office saying they were going to improve the national parks.

This latest park policy that was put out was simply a broad attempt to commercialize the parks, to alter the basic philosophy of the national parks which has been in effect since 1890.

Q: So far, voters don't seem to have expressed much outrage. How do you explain that, given that most public opinion polls consistently say people want more, not less, protection?

A: The environmental issues have been swept up in this tide of anti-government rhetoric. The prevailing mood of the electorate is intensely anti-Washington. And that has given the Congress the space, and the administration the space, to do things.

Q: You write that the purpose of your book is to show how we can protect natural and cultural landscapes and watersheds through stronger federal leadership in land-use planning. What are the prospects for that kind of leadership?

A: It's not going to happen in this Congress. It's not going to happen in this administration but I'm confident that the time will come. I see these cycles in American history, and I'm convinced that before too long, this sort of nihilistic, destructive set of policies is going to yield to public pressure for a more constructive vision.

Q: One place where the federal government has the opportunity almost to start from scratch with land-use planning is on the Gulf Coast and in southern Louisiana. Is there any evidence that the federal government is leading that effort?

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