He was hailed as the Secretary of the Interior who would finally make a difference. Now his friends are abandoning him, his enemies are outmaneuvering him, and the president is nowhere to be found. Will Bruce Babbitt’s missteps on the road to reform prove to be the downfall of an honorable man?

By Chip Brown

Outside Magazine
October 1994

Had he the chance to tinker with his fate, Bruce Babbitt’s forefather Edward might have found a muzzle for his dog. Or a place at the pound. When he popped up in Plymouth in 1639, 12 years of age, the progenitor of the Babbitt clan started the family’s tradition of frontiersmanship in America. In time Edward bought a farm, married the daughter of a Boston leather dresser, and fathered 11 children. Then came the bad day in 1675 when he spied some Indians filing through the woods. He scrambled up a tree and hid in the canopy. The plan might have worked, too, but his loyal fool dog began to bark, and Edward was suddenly more conspicuous than a finalist for the Supreme Court. The Indians yanked him down and put him to death.

His children bred like Babbitts, though. The generations edged west. Two centuries later, a notable bunch rode the Atlantic and Pacific railroad out of Cincinnati. In 1886 Geronimo was still at large, and Flagstaff, Arizona, was just a chapped outpost in the ponderosa pines. With his four brothers, Babbitt’s grandfather C. J. bought into the cattle business. They roughed it in tents, eating sowbelly and white beans washed down with coffee. Capitalizing on the depression of 1893, they acquired ranch land all the way to the Grand Canyon. Theirs were the pieties of Manifest Destiny; their empire, one of the grandest in Arizona Territory–more than three million acres of range, lumberyards, slaughterhouses, grocery stores, trading posts, mortuaries, a bank. As a family, the Babbitt brothers were noted for thrift, hard work, benignity of power, and civility. Brother David’s house had Flagstaff’s first bathtub.

And so cow towns became cities and the frontier was settled. Today the West holds some of the most urban areas of the country, and its future defines a new kind of frontier, one of limits and compromises and trade-offs, where myths collide and cowboys communicate by fax modem. It’s fitting that another Babbitt–C. J.’s 56-year-old grandson Bruce, the former two-term governor of Arizona and onetime candidate for president of the United States–should come along to seek his fortune on it. The quandary of the West today is encapsulated in the adventure of the Babbitt family itself: Where do you go, what do you do, when the train you’ve been riding for ten generations reaches the end of the line?

Clownishly bundled in a red nylon survival suit, Bruce Babbitt peered from the helicopter at a world that is a measure of what the West once was. Wildness reached for the throat. Icebreakers prowled the inhospitable waters of the Beaufort Sea. The white welter of pack ice massed in the north like an army. To the south, gray swells gave way to the green march of the continent.

As he had on the outbound flight to the Kuvulum oil-drilling rig, Babbitt’s U.S. Park Police bodyguard, Norbert Bonjo, looked uneasy. Hail peppered the chopper like buckshot spilling on a drum. The mid-August temperature was in the low thirties. Bonjo’s nine-millimeter might have stopped a disgruntled mining-claim holder or delayed an intemperate polar bear, but it couldn’t save the boss from hypothermia. Even Babbitt, whose survival suit would give him an extra 20 minutes as Secretary of the Interior in event of a crash, seemed a little daunted by the exposure. And well he should have. The domain below would sooner have killed him than heard another word about ecosystem management. There’s no escaping the absurdity of presiding over a land where climate and geography mock the very conceit of human jurisdiction. Perhaps the look on Babbitt’s face recalled poor Edward’s apprehension in the primordial forest of Massachusetts.

Then again, it could have been jet lag. Babbitt is known for having the stamina of an arctic tern, but it had been a long day, and it still wasn’t over. The day before, he had flown from Washington, D.C., to Anchorage, addressed 700 Interior employees in the evening, and gotten up at dawn for the leg to Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay. Already this morning Babbitt had been briefed by executives from Arco who urged him to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration. (“A congressional decision,” he repeatedly pointed out.) He had toured the $300-million Kuvulum off-shore rig; dropped in on a British Petroleum drilling site; and moseyed around the modular Alaska Pipeline moon-base at Prudhoe Bay, where the air smells like New Jersey but the roads, as eager-to-seem-green oil officials pointed out, have been platted to skirt fox dens. At mile zero of the pipeline, Babbitt bantered with Alaska Governor Walter Hickel, his ideological antithesis, whose land-use philosophy has more in common with Babbitts from the nineteenth century.

“I don’t know if the governor of Alaska wants to be seen in the company of the Secretary of the Interior,” Babbitt said lightly, a honeymoon line, possible only when the opposite is true. In the months to come, when the honeymoon was over and his plans were unraveling and his prestige was tarnished, Babbitt would not have the luxury of undercutting himself so insouciantly. Posing by the pipeline, his pale blue eyes set in a basset-hound face, he made for a relaxed and rangy figure, his air of assurance born of ranching aristocracy and a star résumé. Boredom sometimes can make Babbitt look like a basset hound trapped in a kennel with a bunch of dimwit Irish setters. Since high school he’s had to grapple with the liability of being the smartest boy in class, and one wonders whether he didn’t develop his self-deprecating humor to cover the temptation to condescend to intellectual inferiors. When asked whether the look he was affecting for the news photographers was “lugubrious,” he shook his head and suggested “enigmatic,” and he put so much English on the word that it seemed to encompass the farce of public life, image-mongering, and journalism, too. “All the world’s a stage,” he sighed as a photographer snapped away.

Babbitt’s detachment, his air of preoccupation, usually plays in the press as a charming trait, a central aspect of his comic persona. Journalists have patronizingly detailed his repertoire of facial tics and twitches and served up the stories about how he often forgets to keep money in his wallet or leaves the house in suit pants that don’t match his jacket. It’s all part of the lore of St. Bruce, the man of ideas, the man of books, the principled man of Nature who gains in stature by losing presidential bids, and who is untainted by the expediencies and vanities of political life. Bruce Babbitt, the man who has a theory of the world that is sometimes sweetly out of sync with reality.

The Secretary of the Interior is high sheriff of some 503 million acres of public land, most of it in 11 western states. Throughout the eighties and early nineties public-land policy was made by sheriffs who put ideology ahead of science–well-connected men who winked at laws they didn’t like and sometimes seemed to confuse the Department of the Interior with the Department of Commerce. Bruce Babbitt’s appointment came as the answered prayer of nearly every environmental group in the country. Here was a smart, unapologetic environmentalist committed to protecting the land. He had degrees in geology and law. He liked to ski. He had already hiked a lot of the acre- age in his charge. After that lance-and-donkey bid for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, he’d headed the League of Conservation Voters, where he wrote in the 1991 National Environmental Scorecard, “We must identify our enemies and drive them into oblivion.”

Even better, he had an agenda to go with the oratory. Much of it had been laid out in Charles Wilkinson’s 1992 book Crossing the Next Meridian. Wilkinson, a law professor at the University of Colorado, argued that federal mining, logging, grazing, and water legislation was stuck in nineteenth century assumptions and served interests that did not reflect the demographics of a changing West. The West, Wilkinson wrote in a phrase that Babbitt quickly slipped into his speeches, was ruled by the “lords of yesterday.” Mining companies shouldn’t be permitted to haul billions of dollars of ore from public lands with the public getting virtually nothing in return. Ranchers shouldn’t be allowed to graze sheep and cattle on public land at rates way below market. Babbitt supported reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act, a landmark law that has become a target for politicians in parts of the country where the economy is languishing. The year 1993, he said, was going to be the year of reform. He had set a new tone at Interior from the get-go, standing outside the C Street headquarters to greet employees as they streamed in. Morale soared.

That glorious entrance is starting to look like the setup that precedes the downfall of an honorable man. You can’t be the kind of Interior Secretary that Babbitt wants to be without making enemies, especially in the West, where millions of acres of public land are provincially viewed as semiprivate backyards. It’s often, as Babbitt has been saying lately, a thankless job in which “no good deed goes unpunished.” But after almost two years, Babbitt finds himself known less for his reforms than for his missteps on the road to reform. His program to stop the abuse of public land is fast becoming a front in an ongoing culture war over who should control the West. Thanks to his less-than-adroit entry into capital politics, Babbitt has made himself a symbol of high-handed federal trespass and has pulled off the miserable trick of emboldening foes and alienating friends. True, some of his friends had wildly unrealistic expectations. And true, his tenure at Interior is still a work in progress. And it should be said that what he is trying to accomplish may not lend itself to quick judgments or to conventional methods of assessing winners and losers. But Babbitt’s months on the job have exposed a troubling contradiction between his environmental heart and his political head. In his desire to achieve results, he seems to be playing a dicey game of bringing his talents for negotiation and compromise to bear on what he knows are uncompromising natural limits. Not everyone in the environmental community expected him to crucify himself on his principles, but they did expect real changes, not window dressing; tough stands, not cave-ins; and maybe a few lines drawn in the sand. They did not expect an administration that seems hell-bent on placating political enemies.

A number of environmentalists have begun to criticize what they see as Babbitt’s lack of leadership skills, what one calls his Lone Ranger style. They worry that he assumes people will follow his ideas just because he has thought a solution through. They worry that he tries to do too much alone and that he’s busy seeking a consensus when he should be mobilizing an army.

“He’s vacillated wildly on his positions,” says Jim Owens, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Western Ancient Forest Campaign, a group dedicated to preserving old-growth forest. “In two years the wool has been stripped from our eyes and people are dissatisfied. He wants the middle ground, but there isn’t room to compromise on these issues, so when he goes for compromise, environmentalists go crazy.”

In calmer moments, environmentalists are also asking: What has Babbitt really accomplished? Where is this vaunted political force called the New West, those urban voters committed to preserving rather than plundering America’s public lands? Where is the crusade Babbitt was supposed to lead? After 12 years as outlaws in the Republican wilderness, they thought the struggle was over. Their man was high sheriff, and things were supposed to get easier.

When I first caught up with Babbitt in Washington, questions about his leadership had not acquired their current urgency. It was last fall, during round two of the grazing debate, and Babbitt was just a few weeks back from his adventure in Alaska. He had shed the Patagonia jacket and the Merrell boots for a custom-tailored striped suit and a tie so perfectly nondescript that it seemed part of the connective tissue of Washington.

Babbitt was still riding high as the “green knight” who had gotten top marks for appointments and hope-stirring speeches. Interior employees should think of themselves as working in the Department of the Environment, he had said. The country had to shift the focus from endangered species to endangered habitat; it had to embrace the concept of ecosystem management. He was creating a new bureau that would map and study the nation’s ecosystems, and was in the midst of brokering an innovative agreement between environmentalists and developers to help preserve the habitat of a threatened songbird, the California gnatcatcher. Although the national forests are the purview of the Department of Agriculture, Babbitt had emerged as one of the chief architects of the deal to resolve the spotted-owl-versus-old-growth-timber impasse in the Pacific Northwest, a deal that may be considered one of those perverse triumphs of democracy in that it pissed everybody off.

“Environmentally, things are at once better and more threatened,” Babbitt said, sitting in the famous sixth-floor lair of Secretaries past. A large piece of bowhead whale baleen, a gift he received in Alaska, was stashed on a side table. He was still in a position to emphasize strategy before tactics, and his views were informed by his deep sense of history. “The condition of the West and the ecological health of the land has in many ways been improving since Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot got started,” he said. “Nineteen hundred was the breaking point. Prior to that time, it was every man for himself, in classic frontier fashion. Since then the institutions have been getting stronger. The problem is, the race continues. The empty spaces–the commons–are filling up. We’ve made tremendous progress in the way we manage the land, but it’s been continually threatened by demands for resources. The premise of sustainable development is that we must recognize that there are limits to the carrying capacity of the land. The metaphor I’ve found useful is Haiti and Holland. Haiti and Holland are the two most densely populated countries on earth. One has gone to devastation, the other is the most intensely managed land in the world, and it’s beautiful.”

What Babbitt was determined to prevent were the “train wrecks” that occurred during the Reagan and Bush administrations. The ghastly collision in the Northwest between loggers and environmentalists could have been avoided, in Babbitt’s view, if federal managers had wanted to make the Endangered Species Act work. They preferred, he believed, to exacerbate tensions between environmental protection and economic development in order to weaken the law. Babbitt pointed to his California gnatcatcher agreement, which offered room for growth and protection for the endangered bird. The chance for such flexibility had been forfeited in the Northwest.

At the time, nine months into the job, what Babbitt had learned about Washington was that “it’s just like state government, only there are three more zeroes on every number.” But he’d had some bitter lessons in the art of the possible, and more were to come. He’d been passed over (for the first of two times) for the Supreme Court. He’d been embarrassed by leaked memos written by his staff. Like the legion of reformers before him–notably John Wesley Powell, the 19th-century explorer whose farsighted advice on the allocation of water in the West was ignored by Congress–he was discovering the old Washington maxim that being right is not the same as being effective. His promise to make 1993 the year of change would not be fulfilled. His power to reform presumed a level of presidential support that he wasn’t getting, and perhaps a degree of political skill that he didn’t have.

He’d been in political circles too long to be considered a Washington naif, but Babbitt’s campaign to hike the price of grass on federal land and to improve the care and protection of the range had enough farcical plot twists and humiliating reversals to brace every welfare cowboy west of the 100th meridian. Round one: In the spring of 1993 Babbitt was reportedly furious (he insists that he was merely “befuddled”) to learn that the White House had stripped the 1994 budget of his proposals to impose a 12 percent royalty on hard-rock mining and to raise the price of public grass. The move had happened behind his back after a group of western senators got a meeting with Mack McLarty, then Clinton’s chief of staff. The retreat, now known in environmental circles as the Great Cave-in, highlighted the president’s unwillingness to rankle western Democrats, whose support he’d need to win re-election in ’96.

Babbitt has a formidable ability to put a positive gloss on bad news. When I spoke with him last fall, he was quick to accent the bright side of his grazing setback. “It raised the visibility of the issue,” he said. “Grazing reform is being discussed on Sunday talk shows and by the National Taxpayer’s Union and the reinventing-government crowd. It’s not just a quiet outrage in a dusty corner.”

At that time, Babbitt was still having trouble believing that such a fuss had been stirred up over a cushy deal for some 27,000 leaseholders whose cattle, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, had left the crucial riverine habitats of the West “in the worst condition in history.” Even more amazing, the debate had been framed as a little-guy-versus-the-evil-feds morality play. (A number of the bigger leaseholders were corporations, including an insurance company; one leaseholder was Montana Senator Max Baucus, who might well have recused himself from the debate instead of leading it.)

Babbitt had spent the week shuttling over to the Hill to lobby for a bill, introduced by Nevada Senator Harry Reid, that would raise grazing fees and impose national standards on range management. Reid represented the New West, a progressive, urbanized mentality centered in large Western cities, but some senators, notably Orrin Hatch of Utah, had mounted a filibuster, calling the proposals part of the “Clinton-Babbitt assault on the West.”

When, by week’s end, the Old West senators had beaten Babbitt’s effort to break the filibuster, it was clear that if Washington was like state government with more zeros, the politics were vastly more complex. What struck others at Interior was Babbitt’s failure to estimate the opposition and, more tellingly, the lack of support from the White House, where there is no one on staff from the intermountain West. Last spring, when he set off for rounds of BLM-sponsored public meetings on grazing reform, he was not working from a position of strength. He returned to Washington with a set of proposed regulations that, in the name of the laudable goal of consensus, left range management largely in the hands of the people whose stewardship had created the mess in the first place. His friends in the environmental community and his allies in Congress were appalled.

“The common wisdom is that we lost and everything’s been downhill since then,” Babbitt said when I spoke with him on the phone in July. “My own view is that the grazing plan, which is now moving toward implementation, is in many ways a superior product to the Reid proposal, which was what the filibuster fight was all about. It’s a different product. There are elements of compromise in it–some are not as strong, others are stronger. I view it in a kind of dialectical sense.”

But in politics the appearance of pusillanimity is tantamount to a faint heart. Babbitt looked weak in his first big fight, and people noticed. Earlier this year, under heavy political pressure from Democratic western governors, in particular Cecil Andrus of Idaho, Babbitt forced the resignation of Jim Baca, director of the Bureau of Land Management. Baca was arguably the most reform-minded director that the BLM has ever had, but his head-on style–“he was raking his nails on blackboards all over the West,” as one Interior official put it–apparently didn’t jibe with the politics of consensus. For his part, Baca was frustrated with Babbitt’s remoteness; he never met with the secretary one-on-one to discuss issues, only personnel matters. When, to pick one example, Baca was repeatedly rebuffed in his attempt to get federal predator-control agents to comply with BLM regulations, he came to the conclusion that “western governors and senators are running Interior more than Interior is.”

By late spring Babbitt had hit something of a nadir. The League of Conservation Voters, which he had headed in the early nineties, gave the Clinton administration’s environmental record a grade of C-plus. When Babbitt’s name surfaced a second time for the Supreme Court in May, the environmentalists who had protested the first attempt to separate their green knight from his charger were notably silent. Despite front-page stories saying that he was being fitted for the gown, the emissaries of the Old West promised a confirmation fight in the Senate, and Babbitt lost out again. Clinton called him “a very effective secretary…in one of the most sensitive, complex, and difficult posts,” adding that he didn’t nominate him for the Court because he “couldn’t bear to lose him from the cabinet.” Babbitt was a graceful and disarmingly funny loser, referring to himself as the Susan Lucci of the administration. He got an ovation from his staff when he returned yet again to Interior to tell the troops that he was staying on, forgoing the “great indoors” for the “great outdoors.”

“The one thing I’ve learned in the last year is that Congress is not in the mood to deal with environmental subjects,” Babbitt said in July. “In the 1980s, the EPA and Interior did nothing. Congress responded by passing more and more laws giving more and more administrative authority, which was never used. Now it’s the other way around. Congress has thrown in the towel, and the challenge is to dust off the administrative authority we have from the eighties.”

But that authority doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In May Babbitt staged a press conference to call attention to the egregious law that allows mining companies to strip countless tons of hard-rock minerals from public land while paying virtually nothing, but he declined to use his administrative power to force the industry to swallow reform. (“It hasn’t exactly been Profiles in Courage,” says Katherine Hohmann, the Sierra Club’s Washington representative for public lands, of Babbitt’s role in the mining debate.) Part of what makes the corridors of the nation’s capital more complex than the power hallways of Phoenix is that the agenda is larger by many orders of magnitude. Bill Clinton obviously has more pressing concerns than public-land interests in the West. But if the president hasn’t thrown his focus-like-a-laser rhetoric behind Babbitt’s proposals, neither has he kept him on as tight a rein as he might–apparently to Babbitt’s surprise. During the grazing fight last fall, the phone rang once during a staff meeting, and Babbitt joked, “Don’t answer it, it might be the president.”

Most of the boys in the Flagstaff High School yearbook of 1956 look like Buddy Holly clones; the girls, like cupcake homemakers. And then there’s that mole-eyed senior with the bee-stung lips and the mournful placidity of a romantic poet. As the photo suggests, Bruce Babbitt was an anomaly from early on. He was born in Los Angeles, the second of six children. His mother, Frances, always claimed that the secret of her second son’s energy as an adult was that he had spent most of his childhood sleeping. She was an accomplished pianist and cellist, the founder of the Flagstaff symphony. She instilled in her children the ethics of work and duty, and a respect for thrift. Babbitt was brought up to be the sort of person who would worry for years because a clerk had let him take a soda pop when he was a nickel short and he had somehow neglected to repay the debt.

His father, Paul J. Babbitt, was a bright lawyer with a talc-dry sense of humor. But like a lot of Babbitts, he was reserved and self-effacing, too retiring to pose for pictures when the local paper wanted a portrait of the governor’s father. Paul had brought his family back to Flagstaff from California after the death of Bruce’s uncle James E. Babbitt, who had been the Babbitt Brothers company lawyer. The white clapboard house on LaRoux Street where Babbitt grew up–his mother, now a widow, still lives there–is astonishingly modest. Flagstaff in 1948 had only about 7,000 people, but it boasted a university, an observatory, and a yeasty mix of cowboys, professors, and scientists. Local scholars and visiting intellectuals were frequently invited to the Babbitt house for supper. Almost every weekend tuna sandwiches were packed in a picnic basket and the kids were bundled into a 1938 Ford and the family headed out–to Oak Creek Canyon, to Fish Lake, to the Grand Canyon. They hiked on the red-rock trails. They climbed the San Francisco Mountains, where Bruce learned to ski and where his enthusiasm for the sport survived two broken legs. His father, an amateur geologist and archaeologist, helped Bruce comb the earth for meteorites and Devonian fossils, and the boy assembled a mineral collection that remains his proudest possession.

Babbitt was a straight-A student throughout high school, manager of the football team, president of his senior class, and valedictorian. He went off to Notre Dame and en route to a degree in geology was elected student-body president. He was also exposed to Catholic writers whose ideas of social justice enlarged his political identity beyond the conservative Republicanism of the Arizona rancher. Babbitt was eager to broaden his small-town outlook. Home once, he dropped by to visit an old friend, Paul Sweitzer. “He said, ‘I think I need to learn something about opera. Can you help me?'” Sweitzer recalls. “We listened to Tosca with Renata Tebaldi and George London as Scarpia. I taught him how to use a libretto.”

In 1960 Babbitt won a coveted George Marshall fellowship, which took him to the University of Newcastle in England, where he received a master’s degree in geophysics. Like any young man, he had a series of epiphanies. On the Dover-to-Calais ferry, he read Aldo Leopold’s classic, A Sand County Almanac, and began to see the landscape of his youth in a new light. “My attachment to land was absolutely emotional,” he says. “What Leopold showed me was the living earth. When I saw a pine tree, I smelled the bark and saw its silhouette against the sky. I didn’t make any effort to understand its place in the forest or how it nurtured the squirrels or the elk browsing. Leopold showed me that this tree belongs to a system of parts.”

In Bolivia in the summer of 1962, flying around in helicopters doing graduate fieldwork in geology, Babbitt was struck by the economic disparity of his life and the lives of the half-starved villagers. He suddenly understood that he, too, belonged to a system of parts, a system that countenanced inequities he hadn’t been exposed to in Flagstaff. He decided that he didn’t want to spend his life analyzing the magnetic orientation of rock specimens. He wanted to be of use. He swerved out of science and into Harvard Law School, but the course work bored him. In the summers he returned to South America. He dug sewer-pipe ditches in shantytowns above Caracas and led a student work camp in the Andes.

After he got his law degree he worked for VISTA and the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. It was 1965, the midst of the civil-rights upheavals. Babbitt participated in the march on Selma. He helped put together legal-services programs for the Choctaw Indians and helped integrate Head Start programs in Louisiana and Mississippi. But the times were getting crazier. Riots were breaking out in the cities. After two years he grew disillusioned with his work, the experience serving mostly to sharpen his sense of the limits of what the federal government could do. He was 28 years old. It was time, as his mother might put it, to get serious. He wanted to find a wife, a lawn to mow, a community to be a part of that wasn’t so…abstract.

The morning air was sharp and chilly as Babbitt buckled himself into the belly of a government floatplane. He’d already burned off his strawberry pancakes hiking up a draw above camp in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He’d watched a lone musk ox lumber through the willows and up the scree slope, its long fringe of fine hair swinging like the grass skirts of a hula troupe. He’d affected a lugubriously enigmatic look for Anchorage TV crews.

The plane took him over flat-bottomed Fire Creek and past a mesa where oil-company helicopters drop bigwigs for a million-dollar box lunch. Then it turned north, threading the mountain defile of the Katakturuk River, crossing a bluff where oil actually seeps from the ground and the air, it’s said, “smells like money.” The plane turned east again, and the pilot circled around to give the secretary another glimpse of a grizzly sow and her yearlings. Farther off, small groups of caribou were running–soon to join the herd of some 160,000 animals heading south. Still farther east the party interrupted a pack of wolves feeding on a kill. They scattered over the great green plain–one black, one white, four gray. The spectacle of the frozen Arctic Ocean and the icebreakers on the horizon was still in Babbitt’s thoughts, and now, with the wolves and the bears and the caribou and the incalculable feeling of wildness, it was occurring to him that this must have been what it was like once on the Great Plains, the caribou standing in for buffalo. He felt like he was looking back in time, at the West that his family had helped to settle, to tame, to finish.

The next day, in Fairbanks, Babbitt spoke to the theme that had been assembling in his thoughts at a large gathering at the University of Alaska’s Wood Center Ballroom. Norbert Bonjo had been advised that people crazy enough to live in Fairbanks could get pretty vehement exercising their First Amendment rights, and while he didn’t have his gun drawn, he was watching the crowd carefully. A news photographer wondered aloud: “Do you think Norb would take a bullet for Bruce?”

“When we developed the western frontier,” Babbitt was saying, “we paid a terrible price. We wiped out Indian tribes, separating them from the buffalo. We homesteaded and settled land that couldn’t sustain farming. We dried up and dammed every single stream. We let logging companies go wild. That’s a price we don’t need to pay in Alaska. Here we have a last chance to learn from 200 years of American history, to see if we can’t find that equilibrium. Government is not always the enemy.”

“Not always, only most of the time,” said a woman in the front row.

“We’re going to try to lower the rhetoric a little bit,” Babbitt continued. “We’ve got to do that by trying to start with the facts. I understand there are many people who believe our choice is either jobs or the environment. One side says jobs and to hell with the environment, the other side says the opposite. I’ve always felt that’s a false choice.”

When Babbitt opened the floor to questions, a horn-handed white man stood up. “Why should Alaskans be scapegoats for 200 years of progress in the Lower 48?” he asked. “I’m a subsistence hunter. Why are gay activists and vegetarians regulating our lives?”

Just bad luck, one would guess; Babbitt didn’t have an answer. A miner asked him why he wouldn’t publicize what it actually cost to mine on an acre of land. “You mean when am I gonna quit lying?” Babbitt said, defusing the tension.

Finally a friendly face appeared at the microphone, brandishing a sheaf of petitions. “I have 10,000 signatures here opposed to oil development,” the young man announced. The room divided into cheers and hisses. Later that night, Babbitt said, “The kid with the petitions made one mistake.” He looked around the table to see whether the journalists accompanying him had any idea what it was. They were clueless. “He didn’t hand them to me.”

Perhaps the most compelling thing about Babbitt is the spectacle of a private man caught up in the bad theater of public life. Politics, which is fundamentally immodest, is not the natural milieu of a man who has been brought up to downplay his intelligence for fear of seeming arrogant or proud. As his experience trying to break the grazing-reform filibuster suggests, Babbitt’s never been the sort of backslapping pol who can slip effortlessly from a joke to an appeal for money at a chicken-fricassee fund-raiser. He’s turned himself into an effective public speaker, but in the early days his speechifying was so wooden it was hard to tell Babbitt from the lectern. His 16-year-old son T. J. is still appalled by the falseness of Dad’s hand motions and the hearty, pushed throb in his voice when he really wants to put something over.

Born politicians also start with some emotional affinity for people and hunt around for issues; Babbitt is the opposite. He proceeds from an intellectual agenda and hopes that the troops will rally behind him. Within the Interior Department some complain that Babbitt turns staff meetings into lectures and makes policy on his own. Babbitt is as capable as the next person of ladling out Boy Scout pieties about public service and team play, but what seems to fascinate him about public life is the chance to compete in the game, his discomfort on stage notwithstanding. He’s compensated for his handicaps with an ability to conceptualize and to charm the press. During his 1988 presidential campaign, when nothing was igniting voters, he developed a truth-telling style that his staff called “the pander of candor.”

When Babbitt returned to Arizona at the end of 1967, he joined the law firm of Brown and Bain and began to do legal work for the Navajo. He hadn’t intended to seek public office, but he got to talking with an assistant state attorney general when they were trying a reapportionment case. “I’d ask him, ‘How can you use public money to defend the most blatant case of racial gerrymandering?'” says Babbitt. “We’d banter back and forth, and out of that I thought that if I had his job I could use my skills. I felt I was switching lawyer jobs rather than becoming a politician.”

With his family roots in the state, Babbitt seemed like the perfect candidate for attorney general, but an early poll showed the Babbitt name didn’t count for much, despite its ubiquity.

“Bruce had the same name recognition as a name picked randomly out of the phone book,” recalls his wife, Hattie Babbitt, who is now the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States. Babbitt announced his candidacy at news conferences in Tucson, Flagstaff, and Phoenix with such a remarkable absence of flair that his supporters wondered whether they hadn’t made a terrible mistake.

Babbitt got a makeover. It was drummed into him that “look” was important; eventually he consented to dressing in tailor-made suits. He had a mole removed from the right side of his face and started wearing contact lenses. In 1974 he was elected attorney general and immediately roiled the backwater office, becoming a champion of public access to public land. He made it a condition of state grazing leases that ranchers leave their gates unlocked. Soon thereafter he learned that he’d been on an organized crime hit-list for, according to one theory, vigorously prosecuting land fraud.

By a series of events that would not be credible in fiction–the resignation of the governor and the sudden death of the lieutenant governor–Babbitt woke up one morning in 1978 in charge of Arizona. He was 39 years old. “I got the call about 5 A.M.,” he recalls. “I never even went back to the attorney general’s office.”

Even among conservative Republicans, Babbitt is widely considered to be the best governor Arizona has ever had, the man who consolidated executive authority in a state that for decades had been dominated by the legislature. He established his reputation as a consensus-builder by hammering out a plan for the management of Arizona’s groundwater–an issue so polarized that it had been considered impossible to resolve. He picked his fights carefully and used his veto power 118 times, more than any other Arizona governor before him. Along the way he also got a reputation for arrogance–integrity being more important to him than loyalty.

“Bruce’s greatest weakness is his incorruptibility,” says his friend Ron Warnicke, who served as chief of staff during Babbitt’s first ten months as governor. “His support was always a mile wide and an inch deep. Bruce Babbitt cannot personally involve himself in traditional, ward-heeling, Chicago-style politics. It’s a sin in his view to reward a friend or a relative or someone who helped him, even when it’s expected by the system.”

Yet he’d had nothing but success in political life. He won his second full term as governor easily, with 62 percent of the vote. Looking for a bigger forum, he set his sights on the presidency. It was a long shot, he knew, but as his career attested, anything could happen in politics.

The experience was humbling. Babbitt ran aground on his own disdain for the salesmanship and the image-mongering of campaign-by-television. He finished fifth in Iowa. In March of 1988 his father died. It was time to go home.

“Bruce Babbitt,” he said, extending his hand at the Primrose Turnout, mile 17 on the Denali Highway. Governor Hickel had rejoined the Babbitt cavalcade for a 90-mile drive through Denali National Park. When the vans stopped along the road, people flocked around, recognizing the secretary, not the governor.

Car traffic is barred from most of the Denali Highway. Tourists take buses; a seat on a bus is hard to get during the short summer season. Hickel, who is famous in Alaska for grandiose development schemes and for lines like “you can’t let nature run wild,” wants to get more people into the park by building new roads. But more roads, more traffic, would drive away the moose and bears and wolves that everyone wanted to see.

“Joe Muldoon down the road says he can’t use the park,” said Hickel to Babbitt and Russ Berry, the park superintendent. The cavalcade had stopped for coffee and conversation at a lodge owned by Wally and Jerryne Cole.

“We don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” Wally Cole chimed in.

“I want you guys to get this,” Babbitt said to journalists who were along for the ride. “This guy is a concessionaire, an old-fashioned capitalist.”

“I’m with you guys, ecology and wilderness and all that,” said Hickel, sounding plaintive. “But what are you going to say to Joe Muldoon down the road who says, ‘I want to see the park?'”

“That’s a philosophical change in the purpose the park was established for,” said Jerryne Cole. “You have to address whether you want to do that.”

Babbitt turned to the superintendent. “Next time we have an opening in the Park Service, you might encourage these people to apply.”

Later in the day, Berry took Babbitt on a hike down the Horseshoe Lake Trail, one of the few things you can do without a reservation or a permit in Denali. As the U.S. Park Police know well, Babbitt is a speedy hiker. Jose Torres, who had to guard Babbitt on a trip to Bolivia, figured he couldn’t keep up with his boss alone, so he arranged a relay of four men to cover the secretary’s route on 16,000-foot El Cumbre. Babbitt walked the younger man into the ground. “I was so tired I could hardly hand him off to the next guy,” Torres recalls.

Fortunately the Horseshoe Lake Trail is just a lazy little loop. Norbert Bonjo was concerned, though, and approached Russ Berry and the assistant superintendent, Linda Toms.

“Is it a secure trail?” he asked.

Berry looked at Toms. She didn’t have a clue how to answer either.

Berry decided he might as well wing it. “Yes,” he said.

Bonjo looked relieved and retired for the evening as Babbitt and the rangers marched off. The Horseshoe Lake Trail leads to a patch of land sandwiched between the Denali Highway and the Alaska Railroad. You can hear truck traffic and coal trains rumbling past. The tourist traps up the road are in plain sight. Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America, might as well be a million miles away. Yet this is still Alaska, and the patch of land is home to moose and herons. And to beaver. Babbitt spotted one swimming in a black pond and trained a pair of borrowed binoculars on it. The hush that fell over him silenced the rest of the hikers. He advanced carefully to get a better view. Between cars and trains, it was so quiet you could hear the beaver chewing. Babbitt stood rooted in the saw grass. Ten, 15 minutes went by. Berry was amazed.

“Would James Watt do that?” he asked.

In trying to break the cycles of boom and bust–to balance environmental protection with the pressures of economic growth–Bruce Babbitt has the unenviable task of trying to postpone the apocalypse. He’s proud of the new National Biological Survey, which will catalog every plant and animal species in the United States and which has been attacked by some westerners as a backdoor federal zoning conspiracy, a ruse under which the government will usurp property rights. Ignorance has to be more expensive than knowledge, Babbitt argues. It was the dearth of information about the thought-to-be-endangered snail darter that held up construction of Colorado’s Tellico Dam in the seventies. With a comprehensive inventory of the country’s biological resources, scientists and planners would have known that snail darters existed elsewhere. Babbitt is also proud of his landmark compromises: the forest plan in the Pacific Northwest, the deal between the Park Service and Florida’s sugar industry to clean up the Everglades, and endangered-species negotiations like the one between Georgia Pacific and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to preserve the habitat of the red cockaded woodpecker. In his view, these pacts represent a new chapter in environmental history.

“This concept of ecosystem management is a sharp break from the past,” he said when I talked with him in July. “The patchwork, ad-hoc approach has to yield to something else; it’s impossible to make progress anymore without dealing with the whole landscape. Your only hope is to complexify, to throw all factors into play. In the Pacific Northwest we’ve reached a solution that covers hundreds of species. We’ve scaled back the volume of timber cut by 80 percent. We’ve set aside millions of acres of new old-growth timber reserves. We’ve put an end to clear-cutting. That is an enormous bite. There’s no precedent for that in environmental history.”

As for the bitter criticism that his compromises have engendered, Babbitt sees it as a by-product of a new order. “In the politics of ecosystem management,” he said, “there are lots of players, and no one gets 100 percent of what they want, and everybody goes away unhappy.” He cited an incident that occurred last spring, when he was coming out of a hotel in Miami after a press conference on the Everglades. He was greeted by enraged sugar-industry pickets on his right and enraged environmentalist pickets across the street. The moral, once again: No good deed goes unpunished. Someone should stitch it on a sampler.

“There’s lots going on that’s hopeful,” he said at the end of one of our conversations. “Population curves are flattening. The sustainable development debate is underway. We’re aiming at goals that don’t sound utopian and don’t smack of the hair shirt but involve reasonable, manageable changes in the way we live. The New West is out there. It’s aborning. It comes in fits and starts. You just don’t wake up with the millennium on hand one summer morning. The transition is always the tough part.”

And if he falls short of his goals? If the transition is too brutal and the machinations of Washington make a mockery of public-land reform? In Alaska he had joked, “Then I’ll go back to Arizona, write my memoirs, and take a teenage mistress.” But last summer, after what he called his “roller coaster” year, he was taking comfort in the history of his department, which shows that by some standards Bruce Babbitt already may be an unqualified success. Only about a third of all Interior secretaries completed their terms. Something about the job drives people nuts. The second man to hold the position was committed to a mental institution after 11 days. Gerald Ford’s Interior Secretary, Stanley Hathaway, left for a sanatorium after three months. And of course there’s the inevitable quip that the secretaries from the Reagan-Bush years had an advantage because they started off crazy.

But the point should not be obscured by all of the deflecting humor, all of the smooth talk about common ground and working together: Nothing will hold necessity at bay. Environmentalists may be whining pains in the neck, but they understand that some limits can’t be transcended. At this hour, ecologically and politically, neither Clinton nor Babbitt has much room to move. For all of the gains in the Northwest, the forest pact really wasn’t a win-win solution. To environmentalists and loggers alike, the deal was lose-lose, a train wreck any way you looked at it. What compromise can there be between a fixed number of trees and loggers whose livelihoods depend on them? “Win-win is a false god,” says one environmental lobbyist. Babbitt might be able to prevent train wrecks caused by deliberate neglect or by failure to find creative solutions to tricky issues, but not those brought about by unlimited demand for limited resources. Compromise may buy time, or mitigate the loss of species, or slow the destruction of habitat, but it cannot postpone choices that have to be made. Even now, by default, we are making those choices. We have chosen salmonless rivers and range that is infested with cheatgrass and irrigated farmland that is poisoned with salt. Nature does not know compromise. So much has already been destroyed by the politics of moderation and compromised past the point of health in the name of balance. If the choice between Holland and Haiti isn’t itself a false choice, isn’t it an awfully claustrophobic metaphor for the future of what was once a heritage of open-ended wildness?

It wasn’t until his last week in Alaska that the Secretary of the Interior got close enough to the West’s West to know it in his bones. And to be reminded anew, perhaps, that there is no compromise with nature. After pinballing from Deadhorse to Kotzebue to Fairbanks to Anchorage to Dillingham to Kodiak, he had flown to Glacier Bay National Park, in southeast Alaska, for five days of kayaking with his wife and their two kids. Another U.S. Park Policeman had relieved Norbert Bonjo. Each Babbitt family member had a kayak and a guide. The lead guide was Dennis Kelso, who in his other life served as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

The flotilla made its way toward the snout of McBride Glacier, where the ice had pulled back, leaving a new world of bare rock and young willows. Icebergs were floating in the small bay at the foot of the glacier. It was midday. The party would be folding its Kleppers and meeting up with a floatplane that evening for the trip out. They’d seen the glories of the habitat: sea otters and harbor seals and orcas and humpback whales. Babbitt had inspected rock faces, tidal pools filled with pink salmon, and the stages of forest succession. Now he paddled into the outlet to get a closer look at the raw ground revealed by the retreating glacier. Two eddies flowed around a gravel bar in the inlet’s mouth, forming a kind of vortex. Suddenly, Babbitt’s boat got caught. It knocked against an iceberg and rolled over, dumping the Secretary of the Interior into the drink. His guide, Judy Brackel, scrambled onto a piece of floating ice, but Babbitt was stuck in the water, as far from political life as you can get. He was wearing a life jacket, but in the lethal chill of Glacier Bay his limbs were already going numb. Within minutes he would be too cold even to make a fist.

Those who are partial to the mission of Bruce Babbitt might like to think that the future of the West was hanging in the balance, but with his long view he would be the first to say that dialectical forces are larger than one man and that in nature it is the dynamic equilibrium that matters, not the individual. Still, he was grateful that Kelso and his son Christopher paddled quickly alongside his capsized kayak. He kept calm, minding the thin margin of life that separated him from progenitor Edward and all the other Babbitt shades. “Hang on to the stern,” Kelso shouted, and they dug for shore. Kelso beached the boat, and Babbitt quickly got into dry clothes and then into a sleeping bag. Kelso opened a thermos of hot water and made cocoa.

The experience, Babbitt would say later, was “interesting.” But it was not something that his horseman-pass-by reserve would make too much of. Within half an hour he was up and about, the butt of new jokes. Some frontiers you don’t cross before your time.