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Babbitt’s chance to mend his ways

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday November 16, 1993

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt will be in Colorado this week. His visit comes on the heels of a string of defeats for his controversial plans to rewrite the rules of the game for managing public lands in the West.

Earlier this year, the White House left Secretary Babbitt at the altar when it deleted his “reforms” from the administration’s economic package. Last week, a bipartisan group of Western Senators led by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and including Colorado Sens. Hank Brown and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, forced Babbitt to drop the so-called grazing reforms from the Interior appropriations bill — while seven Western governors signed a letter criticizing Babbitt’s proposed rangeland reforms.

While this was going on, the White House switchboard was deluged with “Fire Babbitt” calls from around the nation. With health care and other critical issues on the president’s agenda, some say Babbitt has become a major liability.

While many people think ranchers (and loggers and miners, who are also in Babbitt’s crosshairs) need to change the way they use land, people who know the West and who know these industries also know that tremendous changes already are occuring.

Whether Babbitt survives or not, it is clear that public land management reforms need to be approached differently. Perhaps Babbitt’s Colorado visit will help move things in that direction. Some ideas:

First, proposed changes in doctrine and approach need more vetting before they are legislated or introduced by mandate. People need to understand them — both the people affected and national opinion leaders who interpret these changes. Judging by editorials in The New York Times and other eastern media, those who seek a more rational approach have an uphill battle.

Second, additional, market-oriented approaches need to be added to the mix of reforms. Babbitt’s approach is primarily top-down, command-and-control.

Third, there need to be confidence-building activities among ranchers, farmers, miners, enviros, bankers, local government and other stakeholders so that people don’t feel like things are being shoved down their throat. There is not a lot of confidence in the Interior Department, particularly since the leak of an internal memo which makes clear that grazing fee increases are to be used as a “straw man” to push through other, more substantial changes — such as those which threaten to pre-empt state water law.

Fourth, those who are proposing change need a little more humility. Before launching new and untested doctrines — remember the short-lived catastrophic health insurance program that didn’t work? — the federal government needs to slow things down and work with state and local governments and affected industries to “prototype” innovations. Remembering that good cases make good law, they need to study “best practices” to see how they work. And there are many examples in Colorado, Wyoming, Oregon and elsewhere.

If reforms are to happen, they must happen in a way that continues to serve the people and communities who depend on access to public lands. The lesson of the past weeks: There are limits to how much people will tolerate a far-off government and well-heeled experts running their lives.

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