Bruce Babbitt on the Santa Cruz Redwoods National Monument

On Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt toured the Coast Dairies property on Santa Cruz’s north coast in advance of his keynote address Thursday at the kickoff event to launch the Santa Cruz Redwoods National Monument campaign. Afterwards Hilltromper’s Traci Hukill and Eric Johnson visited with Babbitt at the Dream Inn around a table overlooking the wharf, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and Monterey Bay.

EJ: You’ve seen a lot of national monuments. How does this place stack up?

BB: Beautifully. It exceeds any description I’ve read. It’s a remarkable juxtaposition—huge open terraces, old sea-level terraces that are quite distinct. And then you have these deep erosional canyons where the redwood forests are, and then there are madrone and other vegetation, all merging together at the top as you hike up the watercourse.

And at the top—I swear you can see Hawaii from up there.

We drove up a road along a creek, and then got off and hiked. Hiked up the creek, which is part of the Santa Cruz city water system, and then walked along a knife-edge ridge and descended through all the terraces back to the Fambrini farm. It’s an amazing piece of land.

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

Think there are no heroes anymore? Read Bruce Babbitt: Monuments Man.

EJ: I was living and working in Montana when you and President Clinton created a whole bunch of national monuments in the 1990s…

BB: … including the Missouri Breaks—one of the great ones.

EJ: Definitely ... but I remember that some environmentalists at the time were howling: “We need this to be an act of Congress. The next president could undo this.” So: Did any of those 21 national monuments ever get un-designated?

BB No. Not one. The track record of presidents under the Antiquities Act is really very good. In the 100-plus-year history of the Antiquities Act none have been revoked. There’ve been a few minor boundary changes. But several hundred proclaimed. None abolished.

TH: Why this mechanism of national monuments? We could be vigorously campaigning for more national parks or more state parks…

BB: Traditionally, through history, presidents have used the Antiquities Act to carve out national monuments to turn over to national parks. It was a turn-of-the-centaury idea that parks equal conservation. We changed that with the Grand Staircase Escalante monument [in Utah].

I sat down with the president and said, we need to have a bigger view of national conservation. And BLM particularly ought to be encouraged and motivated to become a conservation agency. It is the biggest landowner of all federal agencies— 250 million acres of land. We need to give them some inspiration. Rather than just taking land away from them and give it to Parks Service.

So most of the monuments on our watch were created and left with BLM in the National Landscape Conservation System [created by Secretary Babbitt in 2000]: Wilderness areas, Wild and Scenic Rivers and a whole collection of national monuments. It’s having its intended effect. I think even environmentalists who were skeptical have come around.

Here we are in Santa Cruz County on some BLM land. It’s particularly appropriate here on the Coast Dairies because it’s a good fit. BLM should continue to manage the land. There are multiple uses out there, including some agriculture, some grazing permits. And it doesn’t need to be dramatically changed. What it needs is more resources, more attention and the gradual development of public access, of which there is virtually none right now.

EJ: I remember 20-plus years ago the idea of public access wasn’t something we cared much about. We agreed about protecting land. But the idea frequently was, we’ll keep people out. I have the sense that philosophy has given way to some thinking that inviting people onto these lands is the way to go.

BB: Well, I think that’s exactly right. There are a lot of reasons for thinking carefully about how it is you provide the outdoor experience and access to the public. First thing is, it’s the best way to generate support for public lands. People who use them will be in the front ranks of their defenders.

It’s particularly important now. We used to be as a society in an age when lots of people grew up with rural experience. Certainly you [Traci] did, growing up on the Navajo Reservation and you [Eric] living in Montana. Now 80 percent of people in this country live in cities. We’re in danger of losing this connection with the natural world. And I think it’s really important that we use pubic land at appropriate levels to try to reconnect, if you will. It’s important as part of the national experience.

What I’ve heard in one day here is kind of two questions: One is, why do you think it should be a national monument? And second is, do you think President Obama will do it?

EJ: You’ve answered the first. What’s the answer to the second?

BB: It’s a little more complicated. Prior to Clinton, the Antiquities Act was kind of a fairly well kept secret. It wasn’t much of an issue. Presidents would throw some national monuments over the transom, on the way out, and it didn’t connect very much. The way we got into really using them has created a completely different environment. There are monument proposals floating down like snowflakes, all around the country. So the question is: how do you get in line and improve your position in line?

One thing I read Pres. Obama very clearly about is he’s saying: I’m judging to a significant degree on the amount of community support for a monument. A critic might say, “When Babbitt and Clinton were doing this, they weren’t too concerned about whether there was any opposition.” [Laughs.] But the president now appropriately is saying, “OK, the debate’s under way, I want to see real community support.” That is number one. Get the support out there. Get the public officials lined up in favor, all the disparate groups.

This meeting going on tomorrow [Thursday] night is a perfect platform to do that.

EJ: At the same time that there’s all this public support for the idea of national monuments, and even skeptics have bought into it, there’s this huge push against them. I read about the bill in Nevada, which they’re calling the Anti-Babbitt bill.

BB: [laughs] I didn’t see that.

EJ: It was an editorial in the Elko paper.

BB: That’s great! Well, at least they remember me.

California is different from the Mountain West. There’s a much stronger consensus for environmental protection here in California. It’s a function of lots of things. There are 35 million people in California. There are 1 million in Nevada. In California people say, “Let’s better get on with protecting open space. It’s not infinite.”

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

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

EJ: What do you think will happen with the bill from [Alaska congressman Don] Young, who essentially reintroduced the [Alaska Sen. Lisa] Murkowski bill from last year? What it says, if I read it correctly, is the Antiquities Act stands but the President has to get approval from Congress. Which essentially kills it.

BB: There’s a whole variety of ways seeking to dilute this. And those bills have gone nowhere. The reason is a vast majority of members of Congress come from states where there is strong consensus for conservation on public lands.

But we can’t take that for granted. You can’t just say, “It won’t happen,” because in this new political landscape it might happen.

And I’m out on the road a little more this year because of it. Two weeks ago I was in Utah to speak to the Outdoor Industry Association. It’s a huge organization. All the outdoor businesses and suppliers. I basically got in front of ‘em and said, “Look, you guys gotta get organized. Public lands and the outdoors is the basis of your business. It’s your economy. “

TH: Do you find receptive audiences?

BB: Yes, because I am targeting audiences that we want to motivate. I’m not talking to the opposition; they’re already out there. We’re going for people who in the middle—who are family oriented, not deeply engaged in politics, but highly receptive to this message.

Not everywhere I go is Santa Cruz County. It ain’t that easy.

EJ: I know from living in Montana—and when I was living there the militias were going crazy, but even normal folks who weren’t progressives have a real distrust of federal government. And you’ve always been a champion of federal authority. In your book [Cities in The Wilderness] you make an argument for the federal government stepping up with regards to land use planning. Can you talk about that?

BB: Sure. If you look at the history of conservation in the American West, it’s clear that the conservation movement has a broad base of national support. And it’s always been a major factor in the creation of national parks and national forests. It’s all too common to hear people say we should turn public lands over to states. But when you listen carefully, these arguments are about turning them over to the industries: transfer the lands to the state and they’ll have the power to convey them right out of public hands and into the hands of the industrial users. You see it right now with oil and gas in in the Rocky Mountains. Much of this Sagebrush Rebellion stuff, I think, is being backed by the oil and gas industry saying, “We’re going to finance these crusades.” It’s kind of a front for getting rid of regulation and turning it over to the discretion of the resource users.

There ought to be a nice strong dialog between national, state and local governments, but the reason we have public lands, if you read history as I do, is because they are public and they are national.

Utah has put a surprising amount of public resources in its budget toward this effort. The old Sagebrush Rebellion was a disorganized, haphazard thing. It’s part of American culture; there are always people saying, ‘Get the government out, leave us alone.’

This Sagebrush Rebellion is really well organized. It’s got big money behind it.

TH: Going back to the Coast Dairies for a minute. One thing I hear is “Is it worthy of national monument status?” Can you speak to that?

BB: One reason I was out there all afternoon looking at it is there’s a whole flock of related things. There’s the scenic values, the uniqueness of it. Frankly, in the early days of the conservation movement it was all about scenery. That’s how come you have Yellowstone as the first national park. But now it’s biodiversity, the contents and uniqueness of the environment. These Mediterranean coastal ecosystems, the only place they exist in the US is on the California coast. They disappear very rapidly once you get north of San Francisco, and they disappear in this form very quickly once you get to the south. And then you have to look at kind of the context in which these are happening. The important thing about this is there is an important pattern of public land conservation on the Peninsula, and it’s really important for BLM to be a part of it.

EJ: It seems like things shifted from scenery-based decision making to science-based decision making, at least at Interior, under your watch. When you were talking about bringing wolves back to Yellowstone, or fire as an important part of the landscape it was about the science … I don’t remember electeds or anyone in politics talking about ecological science the way you did back then.

BB: Well, I plead guilty!

EJ: Have things gotten better?

BB: Go to Washington and listen to the climate change deniers and you could despair. Many people do believe that in national politics, science has less support now than it did previously. Largely as a result of the discussion about global warming, there is a burgeoning crowd of science deniers that say the facts don’t matter and it’s only opinions.

EJ: It seems like you were among the first elected officials talking about global warming.

BB: Among the first elected officials … that’s not much of a compliment. This discussion has been going on since the early 1970s.

EJ: Were you involved then?

BB: Oh yes. This is not germane to this conversation, but I’m on my way to meet next week with environment ministers in Bonn, London and Paris on tropical forest issues relating to climate change and how protection of tropical forests has to be wrapped into the issue of climate change.

My day job is in South America, actually. I’m down there a week, 10 days, every month, year in, year out, envisioning the future of the Amazon basin and the tropical forests and biodiversity that go with that.

EJ: Who are you doing that with?

BB: I’m embedded in kind of a virtual network of foundations, local NGOs we support. I technically am close to a private foundation that supports this, the Blue Moon Fund out of Charlottesville. That supports a lot of the work I’m doing.

EJ: So … you served in both terms of the first Clinton Administration. Would you be available to serve in the next one?

BB: No. No, unequivocally. It’s always time to move on. On both sides of the equation. Personally—a person needs to keep growing. And new administrations should bring in new blood.