Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt stood beaming with Bill Clinton at the Grand Canyon in Arizona nearly two years ago as the president used executive authority to designate the 1.7 million-acre Escalante-Grand Staircase a national monument in nearby southern Utah.
Babbitt had reason to smile.Proclamation of the monument, just before the 1996 election, would help Clinton become the first Democratic presidential candidate since Harry Truman to win Babbitt's home state of Arizona.
But there was a down side. Although the Escalante-Grand Staircase is in Utah, Clinton dared not venture into that state for the dedication. There, the national monument was denounced as a federal land grab.
Babbitt, one of the few Western voices with an ear at the White House, understands that environmental politics can cause a split as wide as the canyon lands dividing Arizona and Utah. But he has also been around enough to know that progress is often a product of compromise with one's political adversaries.
And Babbitt works for a president who has attempted to find a moderate middle even when confronted with issues that don't lend themselves to consensus.
The way Babbitt has mediated the distance inherent in the battle over how to conserve the nation's land, water and species has earned him enemies on all sides.
Still, even some of his most outspoken critics agree that Babbitt's coalition building has made him one of the president's most effective advisers - and one of the few survivors of Clinton's original Cabinet.
Babbitt, 60, always looks happiest when he is farthest from Washington, D.C., even when his kayak is nearly capsized by a Glacier Bay iceberg.
The lanky Arizonan, who is in his sixth year on the job, has served longer than any Interior secretary since Stewart Udall in the 1960s. But Babbitt has not been well-treated by a capital preoccupied with power, pecking order and political scandal.
Hailed as a reformer on his arrival at the Interior Department, he was caught between Western Democrats defending the status quo and unyielding environmentalists when he tried to reform mining and grazing subsidies.
After a tumultuous first two years as Interior secretary, in which his efforts for environmental reform were repeatedly undercut by a cautious administration and recalcitrant Congress, Babbitt persevered to help the president's comeback.
He had traveled the country on "Heritage Tours," arguing in speeches that the Republican-controlled Congress was proposing to dismantle 25 years of legal efforts to safeguard and clean up the nation's air and water.
And in a 1993 remark he says he doesn't remember making,Babbitt told Clinton how the environment would shape the president's political prospects in the West.
A strong stand for more parks and clean water would boost support along the West Coast and among urban residents for whom federal land means recreation and unspoiled beauty.
But, Babbitt reportedly added, the administration would lose the Mountain states, places where people strongly believe they have the right to unrestricted use of public lands.
The prediction proved accurate. In 1996, Clinton swept the coastal and urban West, aided by an Interior secretary who pinned the anti-environmental label on the Republican-run 104th Congress.
"For the first two years, his policies were misunderstood and distorted; for the next two years, Bruce Babbitt went out and explained those policies," said Frank Greer, a top Clinton political adviser.
Once east of the coastal mountains, however, the Mountain West has become a wasteland for Clinton, Babbitt and the Democrats. Today, after leaving Seattle, a motorist on I-90 will not pass into a Democrat-held House district until the Minnesota border.
"The rural conservative Democrat, once a mainstay of politics across the West, has become more endangered than the spotted owl," said Tim Hibbitts, an independent Portland-based pollster.
Two Rocky Mountain states carried by Clinton in 1992, Colorado and Montana, voted against him in 1996. Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole won a standing ovation in a Montana speech simply by promising that he would fire Babbitt.
Babbitt grew up in an established northern Arizona ranching and mercantile family and attended Notre Dame and Harvard Law School. He was one of a string of moderate, outdoorsy Western Democratic governors elected in the 1970s and early 1980s. He was introduced to Americans not in a news magazine but in a Sports Illustrated feature on a governor leading a midwinter, cross-country ski trip through the Grand Canyon.
The governors were a pragmatic bunch, particularly when it came to conservation. They recognized the West's attachment to clean air, open spaces and unspoiled places but also its antipathy to bossy federal bureaucrats.
Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus championed saving Hells Canyon of the Snake River - but as a recreation area run by the U.S. Forest Service and open to hunters and horse riders, not subject to the more severe rule-making of the National Park Service.
Babbitt campaigned for clean air. He gave Arizona a foreign policy by lobbying Mexico to cut sulfur dioxide emissions from smelters across the border. He successfully campaigned to force the Navajo Power Plant in northern Arizona to install scrubbers to prevent air pollution over the Grand Canyon.
"Clear air is what the Grand Canyon is about," Babbitt argued. "Take away the views, and what do you have left? A big ditch."
Babbitt also was bipartisan, persuading a GOP-controlled state Legislature to pass sweeping water reform legislation. One Republican friend he made in the 1970s, when both men were state attorneys general, was Slade Gorton, now Washington's senior senator. During a conference in Phoenix, Babbitt took Gorton on a pre-dawn hike up Camelback Mountain to see the first light of morning strike the Sonoran Desert.
Babbitt also is an old compatriot of Clinton's dating to when both men were governors active in the moderate Democratic Leadership Council. In Washington, D.C., however, Babbitt has encountered strident partisanship, splintered authority and endless jockeying for position.
Twice during Clinton's first term, Babbitt was considered for a Supreme Court appointment but was not chosen.
Recently, he has found himself under investigation by a special prosecutor over testimony given to Congress concerning an application by three Wisconsin Indian tribes to build an off-reservation casino. A top Interior Department civil servant turned down the proposed casino, which was also opposed by the Wisconsin congressional delegation and the state's governor. But when his department ordered the casino plan killed, Babbitt was accused of yielding to pressure from a White House political operative. For the first time in a quarter-century public career, he has been forced to defend his integrity.
On public land issues, the politics have been just as complex, although not necessarily as personally bruising to Babbitt. The environmental political players have included:
- The White House: The Clinton administration has two major power centers on environmental policy. One is the Interior Department. The other is the White House, where Vice President Al Gore filled major positions with key allies - Katie McGinty at the Council for Environmental Quality and Carol Browner at the Environmental Protection Agency. "It created tension where Bruce expected to be the lead environmental guy," said Denis Hayes, president of the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation, which gives money to environmental causes, and an old Babbitt friend.
- The Green Giant: The environmental lobby has great clout. It also clings to the view that the federal government is the best instrument for protecting America's resources and setting rules for their use. The mainstream environmental movement also has spawned activist groups who cry "sellout" at any hint of compromise.
- The president: Clinton has a history of subordinating environmental goals to economic growth. In 1993, he sacrificed Babbitt's proposed grazing and mining law reforms in order to round up votes to pass his economic package.
- Republicans: While Babbitt loves to speak of an environmentally conscious "new West," Republicans have staked their claim as champions of loggers, miners and grazers. They grilled Babbitt over the Wisconsin casino application and were skeptical when he denied carrying out White House demands to turn down the proposal.