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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cities in the Wilderness

Air Date: Week of

Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt (Photo: Michael Paulson)

A conversation with Bruce Babbitt, former Secretary of the Interior, on the future of land use in the U.S.


CURWOOD: America, America. How does our nation grow? With strip malls and suburban subdivision walls, and four-lane highways all in a row. That question and answer cut straight to the issue of land use in America. And a new book by Bruce Babbitt tackles the subject.

As Secretary of the Interior in the Clinton Administration, Babbitt oversaw conservation issues from the restoration of the Everglades to the protection of endangered species habitat in California.
His book is called “Cities in the Wilderness: A New vision of Land Use in America.” Secretary Babbitt, welcome.

BABBITT: Steve, it’s a pleasure to be here.

CURWOOD: Now, Bruce Babbitt, you’re talking about land use policy, and these days it seems that the shibboleth is that local folks should decide what happens to the land. Why the need for a federal land use policy?

BABBITT: It’s really interesting, because, you know, we do think of land use in terms of building the next subdivision, the location of the church, school, supermarkets, primarily as a local matter. But you know the fact is we’ve always had a national land use policy, which says, not explicitly, that the federal government subsidizes every conceivable form of development. So the federal government, in a sense, is the causative force behind an awful lot of this sprawl.

And my contention in this book is we need to recognize we’ve always had a national land use policy – it’s called development. I’m not proposing that we abolish that, but I’m proposing that alongside that federal land use policy called development there should be an articulated policy to say we’re going to have good land use planning. I suppose the question is how would you do that?

CURWOOD: In your book you talk about having a Constitution for Public Lands. How would such a document look? Does it begin “We the people?”

Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt (Photo: Michael Paulson)

BABBITT: We should think of the federal lands as primarily dedicated to public use. And that we ought to, rather than having these endless fights over logging and mining and grazing, move toward a legislative framework, which says all extracted uses will be subordinate to the overwhelming desire of the American people to protect the space that they own to make it available for public use – hunting, fishing, recreation, what have you.

CURWOOD: Who’s responsible here for changing land use policies? Is it land developers? Is it local governments? Is it state governments? Is it in fact the federal government? Or is it the citizens?

BABBITT: The answer is all of us. All of the above. You know, again, the federal – this seems clear to me – is about motivating state and local governments, to get on with the job. It’s got to be centered at the local level. But if you go out to a local zoning and planning commission in this country you can see with your own eyes what happens. The big national developers – loaded with expertise, overflowing with money, political contributions, political power – just run right over the arguments for planning. And the planning commission’s beleaguered, overwhelmed, subject to all that political pressure, you know, look at every application and say, well, we’re gonna make just one more exception, and we’ll tell the planners that next time it will be different. But it hardly ever is.

CURWOOD: Part of your book focuses on a shift from land preservation to restoration, or returning some occupied lands to their original environment and inhabitants. Now some would say this goes against our national psyche, you know, that the land, once occupied, is ours. It’s lost to the natural world.

BABBITT: Yeah, I think this concept of restoration is really fairly new. I’ll tell you where it really sort of came home in the most remarkable way to me was this idea of dam removal. You know, look, I grew up out in the Southwest where, you know, we’d go out and look at Hoover Dam, an incredible structure, and it seemed like a part of a landscape, like it was as permanent as the pyramids of Egypt or the Pantheon in Rome, that it was just there forever. It seemed almost impossible to imagine what once was.

But we started looking at some of these smaller dams, particularly on the Atlantic coast, that were blocking fish runs, and in many cases found that the dams had essentially outlived their purpose. They were put up for gristmills and water wheels at the time of the American Revolution, and we have electric power now. And in many cases they had been abandoned but not torn down. And the idea of restoration exceeded even my wildest dreams.

We took down this little dam in North Carolina on the mouth of the Neuse River. It was about as high as the table we’re talking over right now, but it effectively blocked a hundred miles of fish runs. We took it down and the next spring there were shad running through the suburbs of Raleigh, North Carolina, 80 miles upstream. Just this tremendous kind of resurgence.

CURWOOD: You have a book, “Cities in the Wilderness: A New Vision for Land Use in America.” Who do you want to read this book?

BABBITT: I worried about that when I started out on this project. You know, I originally thought that I was going to write sort of a, kind of a political memoir, and my publisher just gave me a blank stare. And what he really was saying is ‘look, you write a political, you know, another political memoir of intrigue and kiss-and-tell in Washington, that’ll be read at most by members of your family and a few political associates. And we’re not interested. Why don’t you aim at the future.”

So, the time does come when there’s another progressive wave of reform, there’ll be something kind of on the shelf to take off and maybe in some small way light the way.

CURWOOD: Bruce Babbitt’s new book is called “Cities in the Wilderness: A New vision of Land Use in America.” I want to thank you for taking this time, sir.

BABBITT: Well, Steve, it was a pleasure to be with you.



Island Press – Cities in the Wilderness, by Bruce Babbitt


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