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May 26, 1998

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit Questioned at Photo-Op on Commitment to Protect Alabama's Wildlife

by Ray Vaughan

Last week, representatives of Wild Alabama (Lamar Marshall), the Biodiversity Legal Foundation (Ned Mudd and Joyce Hudson), and I (in the capacity as Executive Director of WildLaw) surprised Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt and Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck in a ceremony at the Bankhead National Forest. Secretary Babbitt and Chief Dombeck had come to the Bankhead for a "photo-op" meeting set up by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The purpose of the meeting was to showcase how compromise and "partnership" lead to a better degraded environment for everyone. Carefully selected members of groups that NEVER sue these federal agencies and that NEVER criticize those who destroy the environment were invited to meet with Babbitt and Dombeck and praise them liberally. For obvious reasons, WildLaw and its clients were not invited and were not informed of the meeting and public charade.

Being psychic, we learned of this meeting anyway and invited ourselves. Being literally the only groups in Alabama that have taken strong action for endangered wildlife and the Bankhead, we figured that Babbitt, Dombeck and the public needed to hear from those who actually fight for environmental protection; they all deserved to know that Alabama's environment is not all roses and sunshine. The Bankhead is Alabama's crown jewel, the most beautiful and special place in the state, but the Forest Service, with Bruce Babbitt's approval, is actively and intentionally destroying this unique and irreplaceable national treasure. The Bankhead is the most grossly mismanaged National Forest in the eastern United States. More than 65,000 acres of natural, native hardwood forests have been converted by the Forest Service into unnatural loblolly pine plantations that are devoid of most of the biodiversity that was in the natural forest. Indeed, the stream "protection" measures in the Bankhead that Babbitt was there to laud would never have been implemented if The Bankhead Monitor (the predecessor group to Wild Alabama) had not publicized the fact that Forest Service clearcutting was choking the streams here with sediment and brought legal action to stop it. It wasn't Babbitt that made the Forest Service do a better job, it was Lamar Marshall, the head of Wild Alabama. But that reality was never mentioned by Babbitt, Dombeck or the false environmentalists there to praise them.

We were polite, and we did not give Babbitt and Dombeck a scathing attack. We merely wanted to make them nervous (we did) and to remind them that they are not the champions of the environment the moment was set up to portray. Besides, the oppressive heat and unabashed adoration heaped on Babbitt by the hand-picked eco-weenies showed that the event was too far gone to be rescued by reason and courage.

Having fought Bruce Babbitt in the courts for six years, this was the first time I had met him. For years I have hated him for his cowardice and lack of conviction, for claiming to be a champion of the wilds when his every action was designed to erode our environment and our laws. Meeting him and talking with him briefly, I now feel pity and sadness for him. He is not evil, just weak, inexorably cowardly and beaten. I wish I knew why our highest offices attract our lowest and weakest people. Bruce Babbitt has been a self-interested compromiser for so long that his soul seems beyond rescue, and he really does not know how to do anything other than retreat and prevaricate. I asked him why he did not protect the Alabama Sturgeon. I already knew the real answer, but I wanted to make him uncomfortable and to see just how dishonest his answer would be. Of course, it was a fumbling and rambling shift of the blame to his staff biologists, one of whom, Paul Hartfield, immediately came to Babbitt's rescue by explaining how we don't need to list rare species in order to save them. Great -- the FWS is now arguing that there is no need at all for the Endangered Species Act.

We all know how bureaucrats are. But the real shame of the meeting belongs to those who agreed to sit at Babbitt's side, smile, laud him and help deceive Alabamians into thinking that everything is okay. But things are not okay in Dixie. Alabama has been recognized by scientists as a world-wide hot spot of biodiversity and as having the worst episode of extinction in the mainland United States since the last ice age. Alabama has more species of aquatic snails and mussels than anywhere else in the world, more snakes that anywhere else in the world, and more fish species than any other state. Alabama has experienced twice as many extinctions as any other state in the lower 48; fully one-fourth (approximately 1,000 species) of all known plants and animals in Alabama are in danger of extinction. Yet, Secretary Babbitt has actively conspired to deny protection to Alabama's endangered wildlife. Babbitt caved in to political pressure to declare the Alabama Sturgeon extinct and deny it protection under the Endangered Species Act, despite the facts that not one scientist in the world agreed that the fish was extinct and that five Alabama Sturgeons have been caught since he declared it "extinct." But yesterday, he passed blame and refused even to be man enough to admit to a mistake, let alone intentional malfeasance toward the rarest unprotected fish in North America. Dombeck gave unintelligible and meaningless answers to questions about protecting roadless areas and not converting the natural forest into plantations. He was a nice enough person, but he was so reserved and noncommittal that at times that he seemed to fade away and not even be there.

Babbitt and Dombeck are both nice guys in person, but that old saying about nice guys finishing last does not apply here. Personally, they are at or near the top of the arena of power. Unfortunately for us and the future, nice guys without backbones in public office mean that the wild things finish last. Yesterday made it clear that if anyone has any ideas that Babbitt and company can ever be convinced or persuaded to do the right thing, I am telling you to forget it. We must stand strong and defend the wild, because none of our public servants will. We must defend the laws and use their force as powerfully and as often as we can, now and forever.

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