Former U.S. Secretary of the Interior: It's time to wake the outdoor industry's 'sleeping giant'

Bruce Babbitt calls for the industry to use its $646 billion economic force to better defend public lands.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2015 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 20 – 24. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

When former Secretaryof the Interior Bruce Babbitt steered the Grand Staircase-Escalante to its monument designation during the Clinton administration, he was hanged in effigy from a tree in the new national monument.

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Taking the podium at The Conservation Alliance Breakfast at this year's Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, Babbitt faced a more welcoming environment, greeted with a standing ovation from the outdoor industry. His talk, “Preserving America’s Wild Landscapes,” gave both a call to action for the outdoor industry — an unsung hero for the U.S. economy, generating more jobs (6.1 million) than the oil and natural gas sector (2.5 million) — and a quick lesson on what to watch for in Congress.

“I would urge your industry to think carefully about how it takes the next step up to use its collective power. Your industry really is a sleeping giant,” he said, citing the Outdoor Industry Association’s figure that the industry’s impact totals $646 billion a year. “You’ve got the chance to really make a difference to protect the resources that are at the base of your entire industry.”

Babbitt served as Secretary of the Interior from 1993 to 2001. In that post, he led the charge for 22 new national monuments, protecting more than 9 million acres of land, in addition to assisting with the creation of the national wildlife refuge system and overseeing Yellowstone’s wolf reintroduction.

“It’s a record that hadn’t been equaled before and we haven’t seen since,” John Sterling, executive director of The Conservation Alliance, said in introducing Babbitt. “He never shied away from doing what was right because some people didn’t like it.”

Babbitt laughs now about moments when his public encounters in Utah involved someone dangling a rope in front of him. That public involvement is key, particularly in the current conservation model. A once closed-door process between Interior and the President now involves the Secretary of Agriculture, the U.S. Forest Service and, above all, lots of public input. That’s where the outdoor industry comes in, and he called on attendees to watch not only the big bills that threaten public lands, but also the quietly affixed Congressional riders, which have reduced protections for endangered species and public lands.

The Clinton administration’s “conservation binge,” as Sterling called it, didn’t start until the seventh year in his presidency, Babbitt said, so there’s reason to hope that President Obama might take a similar turn. Babbitt recalled drafting a card with a column on the left that detailed President Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation legacy, and on the right, Clinton’s. He handed it to then President Clinton at a state dinner, and watched him begin to slide it into his jacket then pause and look down.

“That was the epiphany. What he saw was one word: legacy,” Babbitt said. “Then it all changed. He would call me up at 2 a.m. and say, ‘Bruce you got any more of those monument ideas?’”

It’s reason to double the efforts. Pair that with the rumbling anti-conservation movement that’s making its way to Congress fueled by energy company funds, he said, and it’s time to take the fight seriously.

In Utah, legislation has been crafted to dismantle the protections for public lands under federal management and give them back to the state. After which, warned Babbitt, the state would likely allow development for natural resources, dropping hot-button words like strip mining and tar sands.

“I can’t imagine the West or any other region I know as a landscape of locked gates and fences with ‘no trespassing’ signs,” he said.

President Obama has said he’ll exercise his veto pen in those instances, but just signed an omnibus appropriations bill that postpones enforcement of the Endangered Species Act and speeds the approvals of oil and gas development and logging.

“Your role is more important than ever,” Babbitt said. “You can make a difference, and this is the moment to come together and put your industry into the fight.”

And that so-controversial Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that earned him death threats and was announced at the Grand Canyon because it was so hated in Utah? A 2011 poll showed 69 percent of Utahns now support it.

Crunching conservation numbers
In 2014, The Conservation Alliance gave out $1.55 million in grants, saw 13 grantee organizations succeed with projects and protected 3 million acres of land, 120 river miles and one climbing area. The organization is currently campaigning for President Obama to protect proposed wilderness designations in the Boulder White-Clouds, Browns Canyon and Berryessa-Snow Mountain regions.

--Elizabeth Miller

Before his talk at Outdoor Retailer Winter, we sat down with Babbitt to ask him a few questions:

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What do you consider the most pressing environmental issues on the horizon?
America’s tradition of public lands goes back more than 200 years. It’s embedded in the making of the Constitution. Now, all of a sudden, there’s a gathering movement — led by some Western politicians — that threatens those lands. Energy companies are pressing to increase private activity there. I think that would be a huge mistake. I want to make the case to the American people that there is an emerging and real threat to their public lands. They can no longer take them for granted.

Tell us about your book, Cities in the Wilderness: A New Vision for Land Use in America. 
The book is a description of my view of the broad idea of large landscapes, and how we should live on them. When it comes to conservation, we tend to focus on specific places with boundaries: parks, wildlife refuges, etc. Instead, we should be looking at entire ecosystems when we think about how we plan cities and development. Our presence on the land should be like archipelagos. We should live a little more compactly and retain big, open spaces that are more friendly toward wildlife ecosystems.

How did growing up in the American West influence your views on conservation and environmental issues?
It was with me from the beginning. I grew up in Flagstaff when it was a tiny town of a few thousand people. I was always outdoors. I was always interested in the landscape. That led me to study earth science and geophysics, and spend time working in the Amazon basin. Living on the Colorado plateau brought an understanding that morphed into advocacy, and then a political career.

At the national level, how do you view the outdoor industry’s involvement in land and wildlife conservation?
I’d say that the outdoor industry as a group has been one of the strongest supporters of biodiversity. Outdoor retailers and manufacturers understand the importance of preserving these landscapes for recreation.

Beyond our industry, how can we get more people, particularly in state and national politics, to prioritize conservation issues?
The best path to broader involvement is to start with local issues that voters can understand and communicate to our elected officials. Whether it’s local effects of climate change, water pollution, endangered wildlife or whatever, start close to home with specific issues.

Conservation should be a bipartisan issue. Do you feel it is in America today?
The environment has unfortunately become a partisan issue in Washington, caught up in the rage against any form of regulation. At the local level where we live and work, there is still a bipartisan consensus for action and we must build upward from this existing base of support.

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