The 19-mile trek through the Virgin River Narrows is a far cry from the presidential campaign trail for former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt.
Babbit, his wife Hattie, their 11- and 13-year-old sons, and this Deseret News reporter were among a group that took the trek through the Narrows this September. The trip started three miles farther from the river than where many groups put in. The trek was 19 miles weaving under dark cliffs, splashing through slot canyons and zig-zagging across the river's flashing ripples.The trip is a montage of rushing water, firs and cottonwoods stretching by the river, feet dragging up embankments to avoid bad places and legs sliding around boulders in deep pools.
Throughout the day, Babbitt was cheerful and a steady, careful hiker.
Because I was slow, we were the last to finish, climbing out of the water about 8 p.m. We were so exhausted and uncomfortable that I never managed to interview Babbitt on the hike, although we talked much of the time.
I decided to wait until after I got home and interview him by telephone.
Babbitt was at the top of almost everybody's list of candidates for the next Interior Department secretary, if the Democrats had won the White House.
"I grew up on the Colorado Plateau in Flagstaff, studied geology, and was drawn to an early career in geology because of my love for the out-of-doors and my feeling for all of this extraordinary landscape," Babbitt said from his home in Phoenix.
Babbitt, who served as governor of Arizona for nine years, is well-versed in environmental conflicts. He's an ardent conservationist and a lover of the Grand Canyon, about which he has written two books.
He lost his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination this year but seems undaunted by the experience.
Babbitt said it was only after spending time in South America and other foreign countries after college graduation that he began to appreciate the West. In terms of history, geology and scenery, the plateau "has no counterpart anywhere in the world," he said.
He goes repeatedly to the plateau for renewal.
Throughout the region, the goal should be to "reconcile the conflicting uses with the objective of accommodating as many uses as reasonable," Babbitt said.
"Frankly, there are a lot of areas where the public use is going to be the predominant use, and it ought to be recognized and admin istered for that purpose." The lesson of the past half-century is that the Plateau's real economic values are in tourism and recreation, he said.
One way to increase the level of economic activity is to create new national parks, Babbitt said. "National parks are magnets which draw tourists who otherwise would not be looking in that direction."
He formed the Grand Canyon Trust while governor because he believes Americans should ask how they can provide both an economic base and the protection of our special natural resources.
Babbitt cited three threats to the region: strip mining, coal burning at the Navajo Power Plant at Black Mesa and off-road vehicles.
"We have seen it in the Grand Canyon, with the way that the operation of Glen Canyon Dam has altered the ecology of the Grand Canyon. We have seen it with various kinds of mining operations _ the strip mining is clearly the worst."
That's not to say we should eliminate these uses, he said. But Americans must control them in a way that preserves the higher, job-creating values.
What about off-road vehicles? "They are a scourge upon the landscape," Babbitt said. "There are literally tens of thousands of acres of desert land in Arizona which have been reduced to wasteland and dust by ORVs. When I fly into Phoenix, I can see it from the air _ the extraordinary lands of the Sonoran desert, the cactus and creosote growth _ just absolutely wiped out by abuse by the ORVs."
He concedes there's a place for the vehicles. Some areas exist where ORV users can drive to their heart's content without destroying the land, he said.
"But the federal agencies are shirking their responsibility to ban them from areas where they do damage."
In northern Arizona, Babbitt has seen what can happen to meadows and high forests. "They're fragile. They're swampy in the summer rains. And the ORVs are just reducing them into bogs _ alpine meadows full of flowers and grazing elk, turned into a pit of mud by ORVs."
Federal agencies are "ignoring their responsibilities. That includes the Forest Service and the BLM."
Babbitt just might get a chance to do something about that and many other objectives of his Grand Canyon Trust.