Former Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt is out and about, flogging a book that offers a nostalgic look back on an American Golden Age, when Bill Clinton, his old boss, was in the White House. Fiction fans will love it, no doubt.
Among the episodes subjected to revisionist spin is Clinton’s use — some say misuse — of the Antiquities Act to designate national monuments in the West. Nearly a decade later, Babbitt acknowledges that mistakes were made in how the Clinton White House handled the designations — that is, in secret, without having the courtesy to consult Congress or state and local governments most affected.
But Babbitt insists that the most controversial of the designation — the creation of the 1.9 million-acre Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, in Southern Utah — represents a “major chapter in the history of our public lands,” which Utahans will “come to see it as a great benefit for the entire state.” He might get away with such bunk in Salt Lake City, but Babbitt’s book tour conspicuously misses Kane and Garfield counties, where the designations are still hated and he isn’t a popular hombre.
So unpopular was the move in Utah that Clinton announced the decision in Arizona, on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, betting correctly that the national news media wouldn’t know the difference. And it remains unpopular today. The designation spawned numerous court battles and lingering bad feelings in the counties most affected. Overt and covert power struggles are still being waged between monument managers and local officials, over cattle grazing impacts and access to rural roads. So despite Babbitt’s spin, local opposition to the monuments seems as strongly felt as ever.
And whether the designation was far-sighted depends on who one talks to. One consequence of the designation Babbitt neglects to mention is the 62 billion tons of low-sulfur, high-BTU coal forever locked away inside the monument. Derailed by the designation was a plan for an underground mine that would have produced 2.5 million tons of coal a year for 30 years, bringing jobs and tax revenues to a poor part of the state. Natural gas fields also were locked away, as was an estimated 105 trillion cubic feet of coalbed methane.
All this was swept aside with a swipe of Clinton’s pen — in a bid not for posterity, but to secure the support of green groups during a re-election push. Not only is access to these precious energy resources now denied, but the taxpayers were forced to pay nearly $20 million to buy back mining and drilling leases issued prior to designation.
Babbitt might applaud the designation of the
capstone of Clinton’s environmental legacy. But we doubt average Westerners are cheering, as they gape at skyrocketing utility bills driven higher in part by higher coal prices. Had he and other Clinton administration “visionaries” been able to see a decade into the future, and anticipate the energy crunch this nation would be facing, they might have thought twice about forever locking away these resources.
But judging from Babbitt’s green-colored-glasses view of the world, maybe not.