Bruce Babbitt: Monuments Man

Thursday evening, after a chorus of schoolkids sings Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," Bruce Babbitt will likely school us all about national monuments.

by Eric Johnson

Feb. 11, 2015—Bruce Babbitt, who delivers the keynote address at Thursday's campaign kickoff for the Santa Cruz Redwoods National Monument, is the perfect man for the job. Those of us inspired by the idea that the spectacular 5,800-acre Coast Dairies property on our north coast might become a national monument can be grateful he's here.

For those who may have forgotten, Bruce Babbitt is one of the great environmental heroes of our time. As Secretary of the Interior during both terms of the Clinton Administration, Babbitt demolished dams on wild rivers to revive salmon runs, returned wolves to Yellowstone National Park and reversed policies that had earned the BLM the nickname "Bureau of Livestock and Mines," imbuing the agency with a conservation ethic that it retains today. The historian Charles Wilkinson called Babbitt "the most qualified person ever to be appointed to the most influential office in the American West and, history will show, one of the two greatest Secretaries of the Interior ever." (Wilkinson's other pick was Stewart Udall.)

Follow this link to RSVP for the Thursday campaign kickoff for the Santa Cruz Redwoods National Monument

Read an in-depth Q&A with Bruce Babbitt on the Santa Cruz Redwoods National Monument, and more.

All of which makes Babbitt a good choice for any conservation-themed event—but there's an important reason he's perfect for this one: For decades Babbitt has been the nation's leading champion of national monuments. He is the architect of the modern use of national monuments as a tool to protect significant tracts of land and make them available for public use. As Clinton'a Interior secretary, Babbitt encouraged his boss to designate 21 new national monuments, preserving several million acres of precious and threatened lands. Nothing on that scale had been done before or since.

And in recent months, as national monuments—and the 1906 Antiquities Act that mandated their creation—have come under attack, Babbitt has been their most ardent defender. In doing so he is continuing a fight he's been in since the late 1970s when, as two-term governor of Arizona, he engaged in a ferocious battle with what was then called the Sagebrush Rebellion.

In a column penned last May for the Colorado-based High Country News (and reprinted in Slate and elsewhere), Babbitt addressed the then-hot controversy surrounding Cliven Bundy, a rancher who grazes his cattle on Bureau of Land Management lands, refuses to pay grazing fees and has threatened to shoot BLM officials.

"I believe that the whole sorry Bundy episode has given us an opportunity to renew our commitment to conservation," Babbitt wrote. "We can do that by calling on President Obama to take action to protect more of the special places on our public lands. He can begin by using the Antiquities Act to establish more national monuments."

Just two weeks ago Babbitt made national headlines when, speaking at the huge annual Outdoor Retailer's convention in Salt Lake City, he slammed the state of Utah's effort to seize 31 million acres of federal lands. At issue is the Transfer of Public Lands Act, signed by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in 2012—an unprecedented move fully intended to challenge the authority of the federal government.

"Our public land heritage really is under attack," Babbitt said, correctly characterizing the land grab as an attempt to serve up public lands to the coal, oil, gas and mineral industries. "We've really got a crowd of uninformed, misguided politicians who are attempting to dismantle or abolish public lands and the agencies that administer them."

(The "deadline" for the feds to comply with Utah's law passed last month, and of course nothing happened—Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has declined to treat the law as anything serious.)

Meanwhile, over in Nevada, three of the state's four congressmen have authored the Nevada Land Sovereignty Act, which is aimed directly at national monuments. The law would prevent the president from designating national monuments in Nevada without the approval of Congress. In the headline of an editorial praising the proposal, the Elko Daily Free Press labelled it the "Anti-Babbitt Bill," recognizing (with a sneer) the former Secretary as the champion of the national monument.

And in Alaska, things are getting more serious. On Jan. 13, Alaska Rep. Don Young introduced a bill similar to the one introduced by his colleagues from Nevada: it would require Congressional approval of national monument designations anywhere in the nation. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced a bill similar to Young’s in July 2014, when the Democrats controlled the Senate. That one died on the floor, but as we all know Republicans now control the Senate.

Babbitt arrives in Santa Cruz to face a friendly crowd. Here, the Santa Cruz Redwoods National Monument is being met with near-universal approval—even the neighborhood groups who might have be expected to put up a fuss are simply voicing concerns and making reasonable demands.

But make no mistake—if we are all able to welcome visiting relatives and take them to visit a National Monument, it will be partly thanks to one tough gentleman from Arizona.

See what all the fuss is about: Read Traci Hukill's account of a hike at Coast Dairies.

This can happen here. Read about the creation of the Fort Ord National Monument.

Bruce Babbitt photo courtesy Aspen Institute and used under Creative Commons license.