No better case for cynicism about politics is currently available than the career of Bruce Babbitt, the Interior secretary in Clinton time--an era now bodied forth by major green groups in their fund-raising material as a time when stewardship of the nation's natural resources can contrast finely with the pillage supposedly ushered in by the Cheney-Bush crowd.
Before leaving the Department of the Interior, Babbitt promised that he wouldn't cash in on his years of government service by becoming a high-priced D.C. lawyer. Then he promptly took a job with Latham and Watkins, a large Washington law firm whose client list includes some of the roughest environmental pillagers in the business.
Babbitt defended his about-face by saying that he needed to make money to pay his legal bills stemming from an independent counsel investigation into whether he committed perjury when he said he did not try to shake down Indian tribes for campaign contributions. Within days of landing his new job as a counsel in the firm's environmental litigation shop, Babbitt could be found at the annual gathering of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the $3-billion lobbying arm of the nuclear industry, cheerleading for the planned Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump on Shoshone lands in the state of Nevada.
The Clinton administration opposed the dump, acting more out of a desire to keep Nevada Sen. Harry Reid happy than any sudden seizure of ecological conscience.
"It's a safe, solid geologic repository," Babbitt proclaimed, evoking a standing ovation from the massed nukers, something even Dick Cheney had failed to do when he spoke to the group earlier that morning.
Among Babbitt's present clients are two of the biggest developers on the California coast: Washington Mutual, developer of the Ahmanson Ranch in Ventura County, and the Hearst Ranch at San Simeon below Big Sur.
In his last year as Interior secretary, Babbitt resisted protective measures for the endangered red-legged frog and San Fernando Valley spineflower as endangered species.
The spineflower, an ankle-high plant with delicate white flowers that resemble baby's breath, was considered extinct until botanists found several thousand plants growing where many of the shops and homes in the Ahmanson ranch development are scheduled to be built. The red-legged frog similarly flourishes on Ahmanson property.
If Babbitt's Interior Department had rated the species as requiring critical habitat, it would been another serious block against development plans.
Babbitt's association with the Hearst Ranch presents an equally unattractive picture of yesterday's supposed protector of the environment abetting a scheme either to wreck the coastline below Hearst Castle or extort staggering sums from the feds and the state of California for leaving it alone, at least for the time being until, 25 years down the road, the costly conservation easements are forgotten and development begins.
During his tenure at Interior, Babbitt ushered through hundreds of complex land swaps and federal buyouts of private property where potential development plans had been stymied by environmental restrictions.
The deals often ended up with the developers getting much more money than their property was worth.
The most high-profile example was the Headwaters Forest bailout, where corporate raider Charles Hurwitz ran off with more than $480 million for land that an Interior Department land appraiser concluded had a market value of less than $100 million.
A Los Angeles Times news story described how lawyers for the Hearst family are taking advantage of a new, entirely legal, scam whereby 19th century records known as certificates of compliance are used to create oceanfront parcels and subdivisions, overriding existing zoning restrictions, even though the original parcels may have been inland and worthless terrain. As the news story made clear, developers have been using this law as leverage to extort huge sums from conservation groups as the price for easements protecting the land.
Hearst lawyers have amassed documents that could allow the corporation to chop the 83,000-acre ranch into 279 parcels and create oceanfront subdivisions. According to The Times, Stephen Hearst has suggested that the Hearst Corp. may be willing to forgo such plans if the government will pony up $300 million or more to buy it out.
Babbitt defends the use of certificates of compliance to maximize the value of the land. "I would advise any client who is considering alternative uses to perfect their rights," he told The Times. "It's good, proper and correct to do that."
Yes, this is the Interior secretary who, with Vice President Al Gore, railed against developments eroding America's natural treasures. Is there a better argument than Babbitt for the Naderites' case that on the practical level the two parties are one, that the despoliation continues whether Babbitt or Gale Norton is running Interior and regardless of which one of them spins through the revolving door and goes to work for a firm like Latham and Watkins?
Before leaving the Department of Interior, Babbitt promised that he wouldn't cash in on his years of government service.
Alexander Cockburn writes for The Nation and other publications.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times