Babbit versus Kempthorne — contrasts in conservation

I recently finished reading former Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbit’s 2005 book, Cities in the wilderness: A new vision of land use in America. The book is pleasantly short and outlines some of the challenges Babbit faced as the U.S. Conservationist in Chief under Clinton. There is a review on Triple Pundit.

After reading the book, I’ve pulled together a list of Babbit Lessons for wilderness preservation:

  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew (work on projects with a single state government).
  • Disaster can be your friend when its time to drive home an environmental point.
  • Development isn’t a barrier to restoration. Un-develop it.
  • There is no organized federal land use policy. Individual actions are based local congressional representatives getting feedback from constituents.
  • The ESA and Antiquities acts are major tools in the protection of wilderness areas, but can’t be used egregiously because losing these acts would be huge setbacks.
  • Shocker: George W. Bush is a douchebag, literally spiteful towards environmental protection, science and sanity.
  • Babbit also has an amazing take on the Lower Snake River dams [For more on that, see our posts about SEAPA]:

    In 1942 the biggest dam of all, Grand Coulee, was completed in Central Washington. Too large for fish ladders, it completely eliminated the salmon run from thousands of miles of Canadian tributaries. That left one pathway into the Intermountain West — into the Snake River and Salmon River of central Idaho.

    Dam building that began as reasonable and necessary went on beyond all logic, gathering unstoppable political momentum, overstating benefits and underestimating costs, and ignoring environmental impacts. An ecosystem initially resistant to stress eventually reached a cumulative stress threshold and suddenly began to collapse.

    The precipitating factor, pushing the ecosystem to collapse, was a decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to remake the lower Snake River into a shipping channel, for the purpose of extending barge traffic all the way through Eastern Washington to the Idaho border. Transforming Lewiston, Idaho into a seaport was a maniacal idea. To get barges four hundred miles upriver required transforming the lower Snake into a chain of slack-water lakes impounded behind four more dams. That two transcontinental railroads with sufficient capacity to haul grain already ran parallel to the Columbia did not seem to matter.

    The sockeye runs that once turned the lakes of central Idaho red and green in spawning frenzy are now extinct. The Snake River runs of chinook salmon are all on the endangered species list. And the Corps, rather than acknowledging the cause, has resorted to taking salmon out of the river to barge them through the dams — wheat and salmon riding on barges, each taken for a ride along with the taxpayers picking up the bill.

    In contrast, I’ve been reading up a bit on the current Secretary of the Interior, Dirk Kempthorne. When Field and Stream interviewed Kempthorne, F&S asked some tough questions and got a lot of non-answers. Kempthorn is cagey, by most accounts a pro-development Bush-lackey. But his answer to one of the most pressing questions struck me as lame, then after reflection, scarily true.

    F&S: What do you think is the biggest threat to our nation’s public lands and their future?

    DK: The biggest threat would be to take them for granted… One of the greatest things we can do is bring the youngsters with us, so that passion we have is passed on to the kids. If we can get them to put down their BlackBerrys and go pick blackberries, if we can get them to stop some of the channel surfing and go windsurfing, we’re going to be healthier.

    At first, I thought that was a total cop out. The biggest public lands threat? Out-of-control development, poor land use and watershed planning, energy lobby cronyism — these are the biggest threats, right? But if the younger generations do not get more active in the outdoors — demanding politicians recognize the value of wild lands — we will lose our heritage and landscape.


    About mstansberry

    Matt Stansberry currently lives in Eugene, Oregon with his wife and son.
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