Babbitt pushes conservation in skeptical West : Ranchers, Other residents fear federal protection will deny them use of land


FRUITA, Colo. -- But for the dusty hiking boots and fleece pullover, Bruce Babbitt could have been a game show host: gripping a microphone, swishing the cord out of the way and announcing to the audience, "Let's have at it!"

With gusto, the Interior secretary launched into a two-hour free-for-all with a not-totally, friendly gathering of local residents at the Colorado National Monument last week, listening to land-use concerns while selling his message of accelerated public lands conservation to a crowd of skeptical Westerners.

Babbitt's presence on Colorado's Western Slope comes at the end of a yearlong barnstorming tour during which he has identified federal land in need of additional protection. His list of endangered areas is 12 and growing. The increased protection is expected to come in the form of expansion of national monuments, naming new ones and, in some cases, asking Congress for a wilderness designation.

Babbitt's message doesn't always play well. With the federal government owning 30 percent of the land in the United States and 10 percent of the land in Colorado, restriction on the use of public land -- areas managed by the Parks Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Reclamation -- usually meets stalwart opposition.

What the Department of the Interior calls conservation, some here are calling "The Great Western Land Grab." Officials counter by noting that almost all the land in question is in federal hands, but the debate is heated.

The most contentious issue involves designating as a monument 1 million acres on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, an area known as the Arizona Strip; the plan has been heatedly opposed by hunters and recreational vehicle users.

During a forum Friday, Mesa County rancher Warren Gore spoke for many cattle growers, who are leery of taking the land here out of the hands of the Bureau of Land Management and placing it in the less cattle-friendly management of the Parks Service.

"If we can't make it in the cattle business and related enterprises, we are going to subdivide the ranches," he said, invoking a common bogyman -- sprawl. "Agriculture equals open space."

Still, the meeting was more cordial than many, and Babbitt worked hard to allay fears that his proposals would "lock up the land," as one resident claimed. But he also showed little patience with the kind of endless studies and papers that land-use questions can generate.

"On my watch and on President Clinton's watch, I want to bring this issue to a conclusion," Babbitt said of the 10 years of wrangling over the future of this red-rock canyon land near Grand Junction.

The means to expand the monument are likely to cause grumbling in Congress. Babbitt made it clear that he wants the land protected -- if not by congressional vote then by presidential proclamation. It is this "back-door" policy of presidential decree that is so reviled. Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, the Congress gave the president the right to set aside land as a national monument, a status somewhat higher than that of other federal land but less than a national park.

Clinton has done it once, and that was accompanied by some controversy. In 1996 with minimal public input, Clinton set aside 2 million acres in southern Utah for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. That "stealth" action angered many people across the West.

Nearing his eighth year at Interior and cleared of wrongdoing after an 18-month special counsel investigation, Babbitt, a former Arizona governor, seems to feel he's in a better position to pursue pet projects.

In January, the president announced an ambitious lands legacy program that would provide up to $1 billion a year to preserve open lands. In October, Clinton announced an initiative that would ban road building and logging on 40 million acres of national-forest wilderness.

All of this is happening against a backdrop of increased interest among voters in conservation of public lands. According to Babbitt, lawmakers did not fail to notice last November's elections in which more than 170 ballot measures across the country devoted to preservation of open space and slow growth passed.

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