SEDONA — The rising sun was just starting to light up the tops of the sandstone cliffs when Bruce Babbitt arrived at an empty parking lot, ready to set out on a hike. 

He chose a trail he knows and loves, a canyon filled with childhood memories and one of his favorite wilderness areas — a fitting place to meet someone who has been immersed in decisions about preserving wilderness for much of his life.

During eight years as secretary of the Interior under President Bill Clinton, and previously as Arizona’s governor, Babbitt distinguished himself as a Democratic politician who skillfully navigated environmental debates and prioritized the conservation of wildlands, streams and wildlife. 

In the 1990s, heplayed a central role in some of the country’s biggest environmental decisions.

He helped devise a plan to limit logging and protect the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest.

He presided over reintroducing wolves in Yellowstone National Park.

He stood atop a California dam and swung a sledgehammer as he inaugurated a push to take down dams and restore rivers.

He participated in the creation of 19 new national monuments, from Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah to Giant Sequoia in California, as well as five monuments in Arizona.

He could have chosen to wrap up his career when he left office at the end of the Clinton administration in 2001. 

But Babbitt has remained actively engaged in issues he cares about. He has traveled frequently to the Amazon to support efforts to protect the rainforest. He worked for former California Gov. Jerry Brown mediating talks on water issues. This year, he joined Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey in pressing the state’s Legislature to pass a Colorado River drought plan. 

He’s also involved with a nonprofit, the Conservation Lands Foundation, which is fighting in court to challenge President Donald Trump’s decisions to shrink two national monuments, Grand Staircase-Escalante and the more recently established Bears Ears.

Babbitt continues working, both publicly and behind-the-scenes, on projects where he sees opportunities to protect public lands, preserve water supplies and encourage steps to address climate change. 

As he presses for his causes, Babbitt regularly delivers speeches and writes opinion articles. But he doesn’t usually talk publicly at length about his reflections on his life and political career. 

I invited Babbitt to join me and two of my colleagues from The Arizona Republic on a hike, suggesting we could talk about a range of topics on the trail. I asked him to name a trail, and he suggested a 6-mile trek along the West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon in the Coconino National Forest. He said it’s “not a killer hike, but it’s a good workout and we get our feet wet, crossing the stream 10 or 12 times.”

We agreed on a Friday at the end of May, a few weeks before Babbitt’s 81st birthday. He met us at the trailhead before 7 a.m. with his wife, Hattie. Standing in the parking lot with his hiking pole and backpack, he was eager to head out.

“Great to be first on the trail,” he said with a smile. “OK, shall we go?”  

A love of the land from an early age

Babbitt grew up in Flagstaff. He swam in creeks, hiked through canyons, went skiing, and hunted deer. 

He grew up knowing that in his ranching family, he had a tradition to uphold. His grandfather and other relatives had moved west from Cincinnati to become ranchers and had settled in the area in the 1880s, when the railroad was pushing through the northern Arizona wilderness. 

While many of his relatives continued in the ranching business, Babbitt knew he wasn’t destined to become a “cow man.” But he felt a strong attachment to the rugged landscapes around Flagstaff and was fascinated by the natural world. As early as he can remember, he was “in love with the land.”

He gravitated toward natural science in college at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, where he studied geology. For a couple of summers, he worked on geological survey projects in Arizona and then studied for a master’s degree in geophysics at the University of Newcastle in England. 

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Former Arizona governor and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt discusses the current state of American politics.
David Wallace, The Republic | azcentral.com

He traveled to South America for a summer of fieldwork along the Amazon River in Bolivia, where he helped collect samples for an oil company that was exploring the area. Traveling through towns in the rainforest, he was struck by the poverty and began to think about how he might help — not in science but in a different sort of career. 

At Harvard Law School, he began to drift in a new direction. While he searched for his calling, his connection to the mountains and canyons of northern Arizona remained strong. 

One of the places he held dear was the West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon. Babbitt said he thinks his father first brought him and his brother to the canyon for a hike when he was about 7. 

“We are at the junction where this small stream called West Fork comes through this narrow canyon and joins Oak Creek,” Babbitt said as he walked along the trail. “The special draw of this tributary is it’s a wilderness. It’s totally undeveloped and it certainly was the appeal to me when we were young. We spent an enormous amount of time just roaming around up here, exploring the area.”

He said those experiences shaped how he thinks about natural landscapes. 

“There are just some kids who are always into playing in streams and collecting rocks and looking at the trees and asking questions. You know, why is that squirrel nesting in that tree up there? And where does this water come from?” Babbitt said. “I was surely one of those and I just think I had a kind of natural instinct for all this stuff.”

He remembers frequent outings to Oak Creek as a teenager.

“We spent a lot of time kind of on the wild edge down here, swimming and partying,” he said. He also began to appreciate just how special this patch of wilderness was.

Babbitt walked across a bridge and along the creek. Lush ferns lined the trail. Wildflowers swayed in the light breeze. The sounds of birds filled the trees.

“I think the important thing is to have a sense of the beauty and the diversity of the natural world, and what it is we can teach our kids, and how it is we relate to all of these extraordinary places we live in, and what they do for the human spirit,” Babbitt said.

“That’s really what Oak Creek is so much about. It’s one of those places where people really want to come because it so intensely and immediately has this wonderful, refreshing and recreating kind of aspect to it.”

The previous day, Babbitt said he had roamed around a campground and talked with families. They were sitting at picnic tables, and some children were playing in the creek. He would introduce himself and ask where they were from, what brought them to Oak Creek and why they like the area. 

“I just listen to them describe how important it is, how wonderful it is to be out here,” Babbitt said. “It’s really neat. It sort of validates a lot of what it is we’re trying to do.”

Many of the people he met weren’t big hikers but were relaxing beside the creek. 

As we stood talking in the shady canyon, the trail was still empty of hikers and the rising sun was starting to reach the steep, rugged canyon walls. Motioning to the red rock cliffs above, Babbitt explained why he likes to set out early.  

“You get these incredible scenes where the sun is illuminating, kind of spotlighting all these cliffs, and they kind of light up from one side to the other,” Babbitt said. 

By midday, he said, the canyon will be filled with a line of people traipsing through.

“And that’s fine. There’s room for everybody,” he said. “But the guys who like it wild and quiet come out at 6 o’clock in the morning.

“Let’s go.”

In life’s seventh inning, re-immersing in Arizona

The Babbitts have lived in Washington, D.C., since their time in the Clinton administration. During Babbitt’s years as Interior secretary, Hattie was U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and later deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. 

She’s monitored elections in Mexico, Guatemala and Angola, among other countries, and has continued pro-democracy work overseas through the nonprofit National Democratic Institute. She was recently part of a delegation that monitored a presidential runoff in Ukraine and is helping plan efforts to train election observers in other countries. She also spent 10 years on the board of the Washington-based World Resources Institute. 

Washington has been a convenient home base for the couple, who have a house near the Potomac River and a son and grandchildren living a couple of miles away. 

Lately, they’ve begun to visit Arizona more frequently. Sometimes they come on vacation or organize a dinner gathering with friends from Babbitt’s time as governor. Babbitt has also returned to Phoenix to speak at events for the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, which in 2017 created the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy, with a focus on the Colorado River region. 

Whenever he comes back to Arizona, Babbitt said, he feels inundated with memories and nostalgia. And as he revisits some of his favorite outdoor places, he’s shared ideas about how to protect the state’s natural landscapes and water for the future.

“Here I am in the seventh inning of life, kind of re-immersing in Arizona,” Babbitt said. “I’m in the seventh inning of life. I’m not keeping to-do lists. But there are some things that are important” — and preserving wildlands is one of them.

“It protects watersheds, which are the source of our water supply. It protects wildlife and diversity. But it also enlarges the human spirit,” he said as he walked. Continuing down the trail beneath oak trees, pines and firs, Babbitt said this sort of place is vital for people.

“It’s because there’s something that enlarges your whole feeling about the meaning of life and what you do, and how it relates to Creation, with a capital C,” he said.

Babbitt is a Catholic and believes that Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment — in which he appealed for action to address pollution, environmental degradation and climate change — is an important message for everyone. 

“It’s imperative to protect a sizable chunk of the biodiversity of the planet, whether it’s in the American West, the Amazon rainforest, the high Arctic,” Babbitt said. “Arizona is a pretty extraordinary example of diverse landscapes and the need for… living on these landscapes in a way that we don’t just obliterate them all.”

One of Babbitt’s favorite books is Aldo Leopold’s environmental masterpiece, “A Sand County Almanac.” In it, the naturalist called for people to embrace a new “land ethic” and change humans’ role “from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it,” with an ethical, respectful relationship to the soil, water, plants and animals. 

Babbitt talked about one of Leopold’s famous passages, in which he described his experience, while he was a young man working in the Apache National Forest, of shooting a wolf during an eradication, and looking into its eyes: 

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes — something known only to her and to the mountain.

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Babbitt also remembered how Leopold described the vast, forested wetland he found in the Colorado River Delta in Mexico when, in 1922, he explored the area by canoe with his brother. Leopold described it as “a hundred green lagoons,” surrounded by willows and mesquites, filled with birds, deer, raccoons, bobcats and jaguars. 

That account is vital in framing conservation efforts, Babbitt said, because it speaks to what’s at stake. When all the water was diverted from the river, it stopped flowing to the Sea of Cortez, and the delta shriveled and became a desert — a reminder, Babbitt said, “that overusing water has consequences.”  

Babbitt stressed that climate change also has major consequences, heightening strains on water supplies and that acting to address global warming should be a top priority. Along with reducing the burning of fossil fuels, he said, it will be vital to maintain and manage forests across the West so that they effectively keep soaking up carbon.

Babbitt strongly disagrees with the Trump administration on many things, including its push to open up public lands to more oil and gas drilling. Babbitt approved oil and gas leases during his time as Interior secretary, but he said he thinks the government should now keep leases focused on areas that are already producing, and shouldn’t allow oil and gas development to keep expanding “endlessly across the landscape.” 

As for the clean-energy goals laid out in the “Green New Deal,” Babbitt said he thinks political support is still lacking to start moving in earnest toward decarbonizing the country. But, he added, “in order to get going on this, we need to have large targets to make people think about what’s possible.”

“We’ve got to make a much stronger effort, particularly with energy and fossil fuels,” he said. “The pathways are there: wind, solar, utility mandates, conservation.”

Looking to the future, Babbitt said climate change is his biggest worry. He’s read the scientific assessments projecting how rising seas will encroach on coastal cities and how cities like Phoenix will bake in summertime temperatures pushing 130 degrees.

“We’ve got to realize that it’s now. This warming is underway to the point that people really begin to see the consequences in their own lives,” Babbitt said. “And it seems remarkable after the winter we just had, but I regret that there won’t be any skiing in Arizona. There won’t be any snow, and it will have effects on agriculture and water use.”

While the challenges of the climate crisis can seem overwhelming and lead some people to feel there’s nothing they can do, Babbitt said he doesn’t subscribe to that idea. 

“We all need to do our part,” he said. For him, that means talking with members of Congress to advocate for stronger legislation and trying to help thrust the issue to the forefront in the 2020 presidential election. 

“I don’t know which Democrat I will support. But I’m talking to all of them, and talking to them about climate change,” Babbitt said. “I’m not really a Democratic activist. It is an issue that I care about, and so I talk to them about it — go to their events, find the time. It’s the way you try to get the discussion moving.”

Defending civil rights in Selma, then Arizona

In the spring of 1965, Babbitt left law school for a couple of weeks to join the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama. He participated in demonstrations while the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other religious leaders intensified their campaign to register black voters. 

After graduating, Babbitt became a civil rights lawyer in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. He spent a couple of years in the South, mostly in Austin, Texas, working on a government anti-poverty program, a role that helped strengthen his sense that he wanted to be “in the arena of social and political change.”

He knew he didn’t want to be a federal bureaucrat forever. At the end of 1967, he returned to Arizona and joined the law firm of Brown and Bain. 

Babbitt represented the Navajo Nation in a case challenging a legislative reapportionment, in which the state Legislature had carved up the tribe’s reservation into areas that ensured they would have no representation. 

He often arrived early in the courtroom and talked with the assistant attorney general who was representing the state and defending the reapportionment plan. Babbitt remembers being astonished by the case and pondering a question: How was it that this state attorney, a public employee, was in court defending a racially motivated and illegal reapportionment plan?

He began to think about what he’d do if he were on the other side of the courtroom, and, from there, about running for office. Babbitt won the Navajo case in 1972. Two years later, he ran for Arizona attorney general and won. 

At the time, state officials were battling organized crime and rampant land fraud schemes, which had left would-be home buyers with undeveloped lots in the desert and mortgages that were resold to investors. 

Babbitt had campaigned on cleaning up the land fraud scams. While prosecuting fraud cases, he launched a legislative initiative to create a statewide grand jury, and he traveled to New Jersey to see a state where the jury system was working.

In the Legislature, Babbitt initially found little support for taking power away from county attorneys. But he had an ally in Eugene C. Pulliam, the owner and publisher of The Arizona Republic and The Phoenix Gazette, who had supported his candidacy. Pulliam ran a front-page editorial in The Republic supporting the measure, and the Legislature passed the bill to establish a statewide grand jury. 

Babbitt was attorney general when the state was rocked by the 1976 car bombing that seriously injured and killed Don Bolles, an investigative reporter at The Republic. 

Babbitt and his prosecutors took charge of the case. One of the suspects, who later was convicted and sent to prison for his role, told police he had been hired to kill Bolles and two other people: A public relations man known as King Alfonso. And Babbitt.

The case was still underway when Babbitt was awakened by a phone call early on the morning of March 4, 1978. It was the governor’s chief of staff. Gov. Wesley Bolin had died. 

Bolin, who was previously secretary of state, had taken over the governorship in 1977 when Gov. Raúl Castro resigned to become U.S. ambassador to Argentina. Now the job fell to Babbitt, who was 39. 

There was no time to make plans because the state was in the midst of a flooding crisis. The Salt River had swelled from heavy rains, and the rushing water had knocked out bridges. It wasn’t clear if the dams would hold, and there were fears Stewart Mountain Dam might not withstand all the water.

Babbitt toured the state to inspect the damage and directed relief efforts in areas where people were isolated by floodwaters. 

Other issues also demanded attention. Near the top of the list was the Central Arizona Project, a system to deliver Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson. Plans appeared to be in peril because President Jimmy Carter had threatened to cancel funding due to a controversy over the location of a proposed dam. 

Babbitt got to work, turning first to changes in the CAP Canal project. 

To help secure federal approval of the CAP, he worked with the Legislature to establish the state Department of Water Resources and pass the 1980 Groundwater Management Act. The landmark law established goals and requirements for addressing groundwater overdraft in four “active management areas” in central Arizona. 

Later, he worked with Republican House Majority Leader Burton Barr on legislation that would establish the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to oversee environmental protection programs and cleanups of contaminated groundwater. 

Babbitt was re-elected governor twice, in 1978 and 1982, and then decided not to run again in 1986. 

One of his final decisions in office involved Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was first observed as a federal holiday in 1986. Babbitt declared it a state holiday in Arizona — only to have that decision rescinded in 1987 by Gov. Evan Mecham, a conservative who argued that Babbitt didn’t have the authority to single-handedly declare a state holiday.

It wasn’t the last time in Babbitt’s career that he’d see one of his decisions undone. But in 1992, the issue was put on the ballot and Arizona voters reinstated the holiday. 

‘He’s a guy who lives in his head’ 

The Babbitts have been married since 1969 and will celebrate their 50th anniversary in August. Hattie, who is also a lawyer, said she’s noticed that “he has an extraordinary ability to look at things and sort of say, ‘What can we do here?’ You know, ‘How can we make this happen?’”

Whether it’s an idea about global environmental issues or creating a new protected area, he’s often strategizing. 

“He’s a guy who lives in his head,” she said. “He always has a list of projects. He’s always kind of putting the pieces together.”

She remembered that one of his law partners once said if you put Babbitt in a room filled with thousands of documents, he has the ability to distill all the information down to three issues that matter.

“That’s his gift, honed through many political jobs,” she said during a pause on the trail. She also remembered a colleague at the Interior Department telling a story about Bruce presenting one of his ideas to an unwelcoming crowd during a visit. Babbitt came out of the meeting, smiled and remarked: “This’ll take a little longer than we thought.”

That tenacity, she said, has served him well.

Babbitt said when he was governor, his ideas for creating new state parks required creative maneuvers. Members of the Legislature weren’t interested in spending money to buy land for parks. But he knew there were private lands along Oak Creek, and he thought they ought to be open to the public. 

He had discovered one of the properties in 1980 while hiking with friends along the creek, when a man approached them, told them they were on private land and asked them to leave. Later, Babbitt offered to work with the owner, the state and Anamax Mining Company to negotiate a land exchange. It worked, and the land became Red Rock State Park

Most of the land in Oak Creek Canyon is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. But one prime parcel was owned by Tom Pendley, the son of a homesteader who had an old apple orchard and cabins near a part of the creek that cascaded down smooth rocks. 

Babbitt used to visit regularly with the elderly Pendley, and suggested his land would make a great park one day. But Pendley, who had troubles dealing with the Forest Service, said he’d never sell the land to any government agency. Pendley said he wanted to turn the property into a theme park honoring the actor John Wayne. 

Eventually, Babbitt was able to persuade him otherwise, with the idea of a nonprofit foundation that would acquire land for parks. Babbitt in 1983 created the Arizona Parklands Foundation, which negotiated to buy the property. The land became Slide Rock State Park, which opened in 1987.

Walking across the creek, Babbitt used his pole for stability, stepping carefully through the boulders. As he stopped on the trail to answer a question, he told a pair of passing hikers: “Go ahead. We’re just killin’ time.”

He motioned to the creek, which purled as it flowed through the rocks. 

“This water we see in this stream, you’re going to be drinking and washing your dishes in Phoenix in approximately three or four days, with the water that’s right here in this stream,” Babbitt said. Oak Creek empties into the Verde River, a key source of water forthe Phoenix area.

Babbitt said one of the great challenges here and in other parts of Arizona is to protect these sensitive environments and the life they support — using water without drying up streams.

“This water that you’re seeing here is groundwater. It’s the result of water, rainfall over the centuries up in this high country, percolating through the ground a couple hundred feet deep,” Babbitt said. “If you use too much of it, pump it all dry, what happens? The stream disappears.”

He pointed out that other Arizona rivers, such as the Gila, have run dry as people have taken much of the water. And while it’s not yet a problem for Oak Creek, he said, deep wells have been drilled in the Flagstaff area and could become an issue in the future. 

“We don’t have much surface water in Arizona,” Babbitt said. “What we have left, we’ve got to try to manage in a way that makes it sustainable.”

He said following the successes of the 1980 groundwater law in combating overdraft in central Arizona, he sees “unfinished business” in rural areas where pumping isn’t regulated and where groundwater levels have fallen.

He said he’d like to participate in helping to promote a dialogue in the state about solutions. He co-wrote an opinion article with former state Department of Water Resources Director Kathleen Ferris suggesting that every rural county in Arizona should be required to adopt a local plan for managing groundwater. 

During the past year, Babbitt also spoke out about the need for Arizona to join in a Colorado River drought contingency plan. In an opinion article in November, he warned that if the state didn’t get behind the deal, “that could be the beginning of another Colorado River water war.” In January, Babbitt stood beside Ducey as the Republican governor made a final push for the Legislature to approve the state’s plan. 

Now that the agreements have been signed by seven states, laying out potential water cutbacks to shore up reservoirs through 2026, Babbitt is looking ahead to the next round of Colorado River negotiations on long-term plans. 

“It’s going to be a fascinating discussion. Everybody is going to have to find some ways to get a livable result for everybody,” he said. Babbitt said he doesn’t know what the next plan for managing shortages might look like, but the negotiations probably will follow a trajectory similar to the last talks, with meetings between “water buffaloes” and technocrats, followed by a contentious political phase. 

“It’ll be a lot of fun,” he said with a smile, continuing on the trail. 

When we reached another crossing, Babbitt didn’t attempt to step from rock to rock. He went straight through, getting his boots wet. 

We continued along the tree-shaded path and then emerged into the sunshine.

Babbitt stopped and gazed up at the cliffs, bathed in the sunlight, with trees protruding from cracks in the red rocks.

“I just want to stop and stare at that for a minute,” he said. “The trees and the rocks. Look at those suckers just growin’ out of the rocks.”

He paused for a long moment, looking upward in silence.

“What is so great is the juxtaposition of the big trees on the cliff,” he said. “Really nice.”

“OK, onward,” he said, and he was off again, setting the pace.

Freeing wolves, taking down dams 

When Babbitt met a hiker passing by, he greeted her and asked where she was from. 

Tatiana Lazdins told him she came from Toronto.

“Canada?” Babbitt said. “Wow. How did you choose the West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon at the other end of the United States?”

“Well, an author I love spent the last years of his life here and passed here, so, in 2013, I came to Sedona for the first time to pay my respects, and this is the fifth time I’ve been back,” she said. The author was David R. Hawkins, who wrote about spirituality and enlightenment. 

“So, you get some kind of spiritual resonance,” Babbitt said. 

“Oh, my gosh. Yeah, it’s so beautiful,” she replied. 

Babbitt thanked her for sharing her story. 

She thanked him for listening, then added, “And I think I overheard that you’re a governor, or were, so I wanted to thank you for your service.”

Along the path, Babbitt met a young couple from Georgia who were carrying their toddler son in a backpack, and other people from Ohio, Minnesota and other states. 

Nobody recognized him at first, though several people were familiar with his name and soon remembered that he was once a national political figure. 

Instead of seeking another term as governor, Babbitt ran for president in 1988. But he dropped out after failing to secure enough support in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. He returned to practicing law in Phoenix and became president of the nonprofit League of Conservation Voters. 

When Clinton took office in 1993, he appointed Babbitt as Interior secretary, a choice that was applauded by conservation groups. 

Babbitt quickly got involved in trying to help resolve the bitter conflict between the logging industry and environmentalists in Washington and Oregon, where logging of old-growth forests was threatening the northern spotted owl. That work culminated in the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, which strengthened habitat protections and imposed new limits on logging.

Babbitt also faced controversy over the reintroduction of gray wolves in Yellowstone in 1995. The American Farm Bureau Federation tried to block the release in court, arguing wolves would kill ranchers’ livestock. But government lawyers convinced a federal appeals court to drop a stay, clearing the way for the release. 

The wolves were transported in steel crates, and Babbitt helped carry the first crate to a pen, where the animals were initially released. Speaking with reporters afterward, he acknowledged that his ranching ancestors had taken part in eradicating wolves. 

“At last the wolves are coming home,” Babbitt was quoted as saying in High Country News, “and Yellowstone will be a complete ecosystem.” 

He worked on environmental restoration plans for Florida’s Everglades. He oversaw an expansion of land protections under the California Desert Protection Act, which established Death Valley and Joshua Tree as national parks. Babbitt was involved in talks on managing the Colorado River, and he represented Native American tribes as they pressed for water settlements.  

He also started his push to remove dams. In 1997, he and other officials gathered at Quaker Neck Dam on the Neuse River in North Carolina. Babbitt took a few swings with a sledgehammer, and then a wrecking ball brought down the dam

Chatting with a pair of hikers from North Carolina, Babbitt gushed that the dam removal was a huge success.

“A year later, the shad and all the fishes, you could see them spawning upstream,” Babbitt said. 

In 1998, Babbitt swung a sledgehammer to begin the dismantling of California’s McPherrin Dam on Butte Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River. According to The New York Times, he declared gleefully: “That’s one small blow for salmon.”

Babbitt traveled on to Medford, Oregon, to pick up a sledgehammer again, this time to begin taking down a dam on Bear Creek, a tributary of the Rogue River, in an effort to protect salmon. Other dams came down in Wisconsin, Washington and Maine. 

“It’s now kind of caught on,” he told the hikers.

Babbitt was also embroiled in accusations of wrongdoing during the Clinton administration. He was at the center of an investigation by an independent counsel focusing on the controversial rejection of a proposed tribal casino in Wisconsin. 

The investigation revolved around suspicions of a quid pro quo — whether the Interior Department rejected a casino application in exchange for campaign contributions from other tribes that opposed the project. 

Babbitt maintained that he and other Interior employees acted with integrity, and in 1999 the independent counsel cleared Babbitt, saying she wouldn’t seek indictments.

The fight over national monuments

Some of the biggest decisions of Babbitt’s tenure involved national monuments. Among them, he worked on plans for creating Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on 1.7 million acres in Utah.

Most monuments are administered by the National Park Service, but Babbitt thought it would be better to have the federal Bureau of Land Management take charge.

“We didn’t want to turn the West into a national park. Because a national park means development, expectation: lots of rangers, lodging, no hunting, no grazing,” he said. “There are light uses of the lands and you don’t have to fence it off. What you have to do is think about compatible uses.”

When Babbitt went to Clinton with his idea, he remembered the president telling him: “Look, that’s what I hired you to do. Do whatever you think’s best. I don’t know the difference between the BLM and all the other agencies. You’re the secretary of the Interior. You want to do it? I don’t know what’s good. But I think you know what you’re doing.”

Clinton designated the new national monument in 1996 using his authority under a law called the Antiquities Act. It was the first time the Bureau of Land Management had been put in charge of managing a national monument. 

Babbitt gave the president his recommendations for creating more national monuments, and Clinton signed off on a long list of new ones, including five in Arizona — Agua Fria, Grand Canyon-Parashant, Ironwood Forest, Sonoran Desert and Vermilion Cliffs —  and others, like Canyons of the Ancients, Craters of the Moon and Upper Missouri River. By the end of his presidency, Clinton had established 19 new national monuments and enlarged three others. 

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Former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt goes for a hike in the West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon outside of Sedona, a place he started exploring as a child.
David Wallace, The Republic | azcentral.com

President Barack Obama later followed suit by creating 29 new national monuments and enlarging five.  

Then came the backlash. Trump signed proclamations in 2017 dramatically shrinking Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante. He accused the former presidents of overstepping their authority and giving “enormous power to faraway bureaucrats.”

The Conservation Lands Foundation and other groups are challenging the legality of Trump’s decisions in federal court. The company Patagonia joined several Native American tribes and conservation nonprofits in the litigation over Bears Ears.

Babbitt is concerned not only about the decisions undoing monuments but also about the political climate under Trump. 

“We’ve always had political cycles that go across the center from right to left in national politics. Only rarely does it become radical and counterproductive, and we’re in one of those cycles now,” Babbitt said. 

During most of his political career, Democrats and Republicans were able to find common ground and work across the center. When he was governor, Arizona’s politicians in Congress included Democratic Rep. Mo Udall and Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater, and Babbitt got along well with both as personal friends.

The national political culture, he said, ought to be “sometimes paddling to the right, sometimes paddling to the left, and steering a course through history.”

“That consensus has been broken and given rise to a radical, destructive, antagonistic, dominant right-wing in national politics. This, too, will pass,” Babbitt said. “We’ve been through these periods before. They’re never productive. But I hope to live to see us through. I am confident that we will get through it and return to a normal national political culture.”

Babbitt said the country still has a long-term trajectory of progress in conserving public lands, and that “periods of backsliding” are inevitable. He’s optimistic.

But he said he’s concerned about how the Trump administration is weakening environmental laws, from the Clean Water Act to the Endangered Species Act, and how the president has rejected the science on global warming.   

“The denial of climate change has become kind of the leitmotif, if you will, of the radicalism of all of this conservative stuff,” Babbitt said, ranging from “trashing the structure of environmental laws to breaking up the international consensus that has kept us in American leadership since World War II — the deliberate smashing up of all the alliances that produced American leadership and stability in the world. Just trashing it, throwing it overboard.

“It’s a bad time,” he said. “We’ll get through it, but we’ve got to hasten our way through it.”

Babbitt said he’s encouraged to see state officials resisting the administration’s environmental rollbacks in states such as Washington, Oregon, California and Colorado. 

“There is, in fact, a strong countermovement going on among the states — not in Arizona but in much of the West,” Babbitt said. “For every environmental law that Trump is abolishing, the legislatures are busy creating new state laws, and ones that are better than the federal ones.”

As we walked on, the conversation turned to some of Babbitt’s favorite places outdoors. He talked about expeditions on the Colorado River and hiking in Aravaipa Canyon, the Sierra Ancha and the Chiricahua Mountains. 

“In the United States, Arizona is the best,” he said.

We soon reached our turnaround spot, where the trail dead-ended and the creek flowed through a narrow gap between steep rock walls and into a calm pool. Babbitt said in the past, he has continued upstream, climbing rocks and swimming to pass through. 

Another hiker approached and began talking with Babbitt. Howard Katkov said he was from San Diego and Rossland, British Columbia, and had been on this trail a couple of times before.

“We love the red rocks,” Katkov said. 

“Yeah, no kidding,” Babbitt said.

The man said he was heading out and offered Babbitt a rock by the creek where he had been sitting. They kept chatting. 

“This place is magical, right?” Katkov said. “You’re just driving in the desert and all of a sudden, God’s country.”

Someone in our group had told Katkov that Babbitt was Interior secretary under Clinton. Talking about the state of public lands, Katkov mentioned there’s a need for “some repair.”

“Yeah, no kidding. They’re trying to tear some of it down,” Babbitt said.

“It’s horrible, right? It shall pass,” Katkov said. 

“That’s right,” Babbitt replied. “Don’t despair. We’ve been through cycles like this before in America.”

Katkov confessed that he hadn’t known who Babbitt was at first, but “knew you looked famous.”

“I remember you as governor because in Arizona you were a liberal Democratic governor. That I remember,” he said.

“Pretty weird, huh?” Babbitt replied with a laugh. “Pretty weird. It may never happen again.”

Another hiker had just arrived and was listening in. She chimed in: “Amen. Rock on.”

Pursuing his passions as a ‘free agent’

After a snack of crackers and a chocolate bar, Babbitt was on his way back down the trail.

We started talking about one of his passions: land-use planning. 

He wrote the 2005 book, “Cities in the Wilderness: A New Vision of Land Use in America,” in which he discussed how expanding development has destroyed wildlands, forests, coasts and river valleys, and how local and state governments have often failed to control urban sprawl. 

Babbitt said in the prologue that his purpose was to “show how we can prevent the loss of natural and cultural landscapes and watersheds through stronger federal leadership in land use planning.”

“We must all begin to comprehend our surroundings as landscapes and watersheds,” he wrote. 

Arizona has seen rapid growth since he was governor. The state’s population has doubled.

I asked him what he’d like to see happen in the state in the future. 

“There are a lot of state lands in Arizona that need more attention and management for the long-term,” Babbitt said. “As a state, we could do a much better job of looking across the entire state and doing some basic land-use planning, about where you encourage development, where you strengthen the zoning.”

Babbitt has described Phoenix as “metastasizing outward endlessly” and has said his efforts during the Clinton administration included using new protected federal areas as a “development boundary” to the north and southwest of the city. 

I asked him what he thinks about some people’s concerns that Arizona’s cities might be growing beyond the limits of future water supplies. He said he wouldn’t offer opinions on the state’s “ultimate population.”

“All I can say is that for the next few generations, we are — if we continue to manage water well — we are OK. Now, where the ultimate limit is, is beyond my pay grade,” Babbitt said. “How you develop and how you contain the sprawl and all of that, is an important and good land-use question. We’ve got to be careful.”

Turkey vultures circled overhead as we crossed the creek and continued downhill.

The next group of hikers we met was a family from Phoenix, the first Arizonans on the trail that morning. The father happened to have been a high school classmate of one of the Babbitts’ two sons.

Babbitt asked where they were camping. In Cornville, they said, because campgrounds near Oak Creek are usually full. 

Babbitt said his informal survey had confirmed his idea that the heavily visited area doesn’t have enough campsites nearby. 

“The reason I’m doing all that kind of stuff talking to people is I am hatching this plan for recreational expansion,” Babbitt said. The new campsites, he said, ought to be not in the canyon but higher up, on public land on the canyon’s east rim. 

Twenty years ago, Babbitt could have picked up the phone and called the head of the Forest Service to suggest 100 new campsites. 

“I no longer have that option,” he said. “But I think I still have some persuasive power.”

Babbitt said he plans to write up his proposal and spread it around to gather support.

This sort of advocacy in Arizona, he said, is one of a few “buckets” of projects he’s working on.

During the past two years, he commuted regularly to Sacramento to work as a special adviser to then-Gov. Brown on water issues. Babbitt had never met the governor. But when Brown called to ask him to help mediate in contentious water discussions, Babbitt readily agreed.

He led a series of talks trying to find common ground among opposing groups including farmers, environmentalists and representatives of cities. The effort, Babbitt said, focused on improving conditions for salmon and other fish in Northern California by having more water in streams that flow to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and San Francisco Bay. 

At the end of the process, before Brown left office in January, his administration presented a framework for dealing with water issues in the delta. Babbitt called that a “very limited success.” He also proposed what he called a “California Bay-Delta Compact,” an agreement among stakeholders laying out how the delta should be managed. 

Now, he’s focusing on projects in Arizona, advocating for protected areas nationwide through the Conservation Lands Foundation, and contributing to rainforest conservation work in the Amazon.  

He’s a board member of the nonprofit Amazon Conservation Association, which operates scientific research stations and manages reserves in the rainforests of Peru and Bolivia. The group works with local people, scientists and governments on conservation efforts, promoting economic activities that preserve the rainforest, such as harvesting Brazil nuts.

“It’s another world of complexity. And we work through indigenous organizations,” Babbitt said. “It’s OK for the gringos to parachute in with all these ideas, but if you want to make progress most efficiently, you’ve got to get national and local organizations working with the indigenous Indian groups, all of the different groups.”

The group is using satellite images to monitor areas where the forest is being cut down and destroyed by illegal gold-mining operations. Babbitt said the association is also using drones to zero in on images that can be used in court to prosecute people who are responsible.

On expeditions with the group, Babbitt has journeyed high into the cloud forest and also deep into the lowland rainforest. 

“I’ve spent many weeks just floating through the wilderness on some of these headwater rivers, just getting through the wilderness, and camping on sandbars at night,” he said. 

A couple of times, while traveling by boat, he caught glimpses in the morning light of jaguars roaming along the river banks.  

“I guess I’ve always been drawn to extremes. The tropics are the most biodiverse part of the whole planet,” he said. “I’m basically just doing these things because they’re fun to do.”

I asked him if he sees a common denominator in the mishmash of environmental projects he takes on.

There are differences, he said, depending on the task. 

“Land protection is about lobbying for people to make protection decisions. But water is all about, you know, conflict resolution,” he said. “It’s about problem-solving.”

After more than six hours on the trail, we arrived back at the parking lot as the day was warming up. We would have finished the six-mile hike sooner if we hadn’t stopped to talk so much along the way.   

Babbitt leaned on a rock, took off his cap and ran his fingers through his hair. 

He had a bit more to say about how he approaches projects nowadays.

“You know, I’m not out taking on formal assignments,” he said. “I’m not on anybody’s payroll. I don’t represent anybody.”

“I’m just, I’m a floater,” Babbitt said. Thinking a moment, he said the word “floater” may have a slightly negative connotation.

“It means you’re just sort of like a butterfly roaming around,” he said. “How about free agent?”

Babbitt turned 81 on June 27, and he plans to keep right on going. This summer, he’s setting off on another expedition into the Amazon.

Republic journalist David Wallace contributed to this story.

Reach reporter Ian James at [email protected] or 602-444-8246. Follow him on Twitter: @ByIanJames

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Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic’s environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and at OurGrandAZ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.



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