In May 1993, Jim Baca was appointed to run the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that oversees some 260 million acres of public land in the West. As land commissioner in New Mexico, Baca was implementing many of the kinds of reform that Bruce Babbitt had on his agenda as the new interior secretary.
To no one’s surprise, Western politicians have strongly, and for the most part successfully, resisted Babbitt’s reform efforts, such as higher grazing fees for ranchers or royalties on minerals taken from public land. Western interests also weren’t happy with Baca, complaining loudly to Babbitt and the White House about him. And in February, Babbitt forced Baca to resign.
The president of the National Wildlife Federation called the move “a major retreat for the administration.” Baca went home to resume the fight, jumping in as an underdog in this year’s gubernatorial race in New Mexico. He talked to us from the campaign trail.
Last year, Bruce Babbitt went to Washington to join the Clinton-Gore green team and create what he called “a new American land ethic.” What happened?
Western governors and Western senators. That’s what happened. And an inability to stand up to them and fight, to go over to the White House and fight to do the right thing.
In his excellent book on the West, Crossing the Next Meridian, Charles Wilkinson talks a lot about the Lords of Yesterday — the folks in mining, grazing and logging. These were the people who founded the West and, to a certain extent, who populated it. The problem is, the West has changed drastically, and the only ones that don’t seem to understand it are the Western governors and senators. And since they have so much power in Washington, especially the governors, it’s just very difficult to get any progressive things done.
Last year you went to Washington to help Babbitt. What happened?
I got in trouble just for doing my job. Gov. Cecil Andrus in Idaho went ballistic when I said maybe we should not put a bombing range in a wilderness-study area. Andrus was trying to get the Air Force to locate a large bombing range there and circumvent some congressional acts to do it.
In Wyoming, Gov. Mike Sullivan was concerned about us looking at royalty rates on soda ash. He did not want the federal government to get as big a royalty as the state got or private landowners got. All we were doing was looking at it, actually continuing a study that had been begun by the Bush administration on why, compared to everybody else, the federal taxpayer was being had.
Every time you did something, no matter if it was on a small grazing allotment or on animal-damage control or requiring humane methods when slaughtering wildlife, a governor or senator would call the White House.
They knew how to play politics in Washington.
Right, they hard-balled it.
And Babbitt didn’t?
I don’t know. You’re going to have to ask Bruce what he was up to. I’ve dealt with these issues. I was elected twice in the state of New Mexico to statewide office as the state land commissioner. And I understand, especially when you go up against the livestock industry, that you have to be tough, and you can’t back down, because they’ve always been successful in getting what they want by never compromising. And then as soon as you compromise, it’s never enough, and they still cry rape.
Did Babbitt not know how to fight, or was the problem in the White House?
That could be. But I don’t know, because he would never talk to me about it.
I really think the whole agenda was lost last November, when [Nevada] Sen. Harry Reid and some of the House members signed on to a compromise bill for grazing. It was a pretty decent bill, it was OK. And it would have worked. And we lost it under filibuster because the White House or the secretary could not put any pressure on three more senators, they just didn’t try that hard.
People tend to forget, but the grazing-reform package went through the House 317 to 106. It was just three or four Western senators who were able to block it with a filibuster.
Perhaps all this is less about the politics of the environment than it is about the politics of 1996. And the White House is looking at carrying New Mexico, Nevada, Montana and Colorado again.
Yeah, but they’re really missing the point. They carried these states the first time because they were for change. Now that they’re in office, they have to deliver. I don’t want to be crosswise with the president, because I think an awful lot of him. But I don’t think that there’s anybody in the White House that understands the West at all except for California.
You talk about the Lords of Yesterday who still exert power — they’re not the West anymore?
What is the new West then?
Let me give you an example. Most people probably think New Mexico’s this rural state, but in actuality we’re probably the third or fourth most urban state in the country. And the people who have moved here, and who are continuing to move here, come here for the quality of life, come here for the environment. That’s how the West has changed.
Now the Lords of Yesterday exert their influence over this changing landscape, so to speak, by being very active in politics, in contributing to politicians and by setting up front groups, known as the wise-use groups.
I started sounding the alarm on those wise-use groups three years ago. Whenever you have a new group appear in front of a politician, it scares them. All these groups are running around screaming that you can’t do anything on public lands different than has ever been done. And the senators and the governors listen to them. Because they’re new faces.
At the same time, there’s been a great failure on the part of progressive groups, environmental groups, who have become inside-the-Beltway institutions in Washington, who’ve forgotten their grass roots.
When you were land commissioner in New Mexico, you doubled grazing fees.
Right. Everybody said they were going to go out of business and —
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The day after it happened everybody was quiet and went home. What it really comes down to is this: It’s not the fee, because the fee is beside the point. What it comes down to is having certain standards and guidelines.
In terms of how ranchers treat range land.
Yes. Especially in riparian areas and streams and rivers, which are the basis of the ecosystems in the West. And the fact of the matter is that those guys don’t want to be told what to do — because they think it’s their land. They think it’s theirs — and not the taxpayers’.
Are you surprised at how things turned out in Washington?
Pretty surprised. I’m not a babe in the woods. I went there to do something. And frankly, if I couldn’t do it, there was no point in staying there. I have to say that I don’t blame the president or the vice president. This whole deal, I think, was set up by Babbitt’s chief of staff as a way of getting the governors on their side.
But that’s just more compromise. And by your experience, that’s not going to get them anything.
No, it really isn’t. My departure did not help them. It hurt them. In the final analysis they are really going to have to reassess how they are looking at the West. They really are.
Babbitt or the administration?
Well, both. The agenda has fallen apart.