Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt today attacked the White House for failing to stand up to what he warned is an all-out congressional assault on public lands and urged the Obama administration to use its executive powers to protect at-risk landscapes.
Babbitt called on President Obama to block harmful policy riders in upcoming legislative battles and to propose new national monuments that would force lawmakers and public lands users to collaborate on bills to protect federal lands.
His recommendations came in an impassioned speech this afternoon at the National Press Club roughly 10 years after he left office under the Clinton administration. The former secretary worked for the firm Latham & Watkins LLP and is now a fellow at the Charlottesville, Va.-based Blue Moon Fund.
Babbitt also blasted an April budget resolution to restrict funding for the Bureau of Land Management’s “wild lands” order to protect roadless areas as “a political calculation among the munchkins in the White House.”
He cited other policy riders passed as part of the continuing resolution to delist the gray wolf in parts of the northern Rockies and to eliminate an Obama program to rebuild depleted ocean fisheries, urging the White House to resist similar proposals as lawmakers debate raising the debt ceiling and passing a 2012 budget.
“What they are continuing to do is to chip away with piecemeal bills and amendments, some of which will likely be transmuted into budget riders during the course of the summer in budget negotiations,” he said, placing much of the blame on Republican lawmakers.
Babbitt did not blame Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for issuing a memo last week promising not to designate wild lands, saying his hand was forced by Congress.
He instead focused on what Obama could do to repel future attacks, including bills to remove the president’s authority to designate national monuments under the Antiquities Act, to release more than 40 million acres of protected roadless lands into multiple use and to give states the right to override federal law.
Babbitt urged the president to go on the offensive by proposing new national monuments that would spur lawmakers to consider protections for public lands. Obama could start in places such as New Mexico’s Otero Mesa or Alaska’s Bristol Bay, where local public opinion already supports protections, he said.
“By voicing his willingness to use the Antiquities Act as an alternative to wilderness designation, the president can bring Congress to the table to work out conservation measures acceptable to reasonable stakeholders,” he said. Clinton used the act to bring about congressional action to protect places such as Steens Mountain in Oregon, the Colorado Canyons, the San Jacinto Mountains and Otay Mountain in California and Las Cienegas in Arizona, among others, Babbitt said.
While the White House declined to comment on Babbitt’s remarks, an Interior spokeswoman said one of the first bills Obama signed upon entering office was a public lands omnibus that declared more than 2 million acres of new wilderness and more than 1,000 miles of wild and scenic rivers, among other measures.
“The Obama administration is already building a strong conservation legacy, founded on sensible protections for wilderness lands, wildlife habitat, and farms and ranches that are under threat,” said Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff. “Secretary Salazar believes that now is the time to build on this early success, find common ground on challenges we face, and continue our efforts to leave our land, water and wildlife better than we found it.”
Barkoff added that since the bill’s passage, Obama has taken steps to protect fisheries in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, accelerate the restoration of the Everglades, conserve rural landscapes such as the Flint Hills in Kansas and the Dakota Grasslands, and reverse what many feel was an unhealthy favoritism toward oil and gas development on public lands in the West.
Obama is also credited for fighting off vigorous attempts by Republican and Democratic lawmakers to strip U.S. EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
But Babbitt’s remarks came at a time when many conservation groups are discouraged at the Obama administration’s progress on public lands.
Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said that while Obama’s record has been disappointing, it is responsive to the criticism — and the votes — of the conservation community.
“The Obama administration has been a steady and enormous disappointment on public lands, but they are very sensitive to public sentiment,” he said in a blog post following Salazar’s announcement on wild lands. “It’s time they heard from all of us who believe Utah’s wild canyon country deserves protection.”