Inspiration in Unexpected Ways


Inspiring a New Commitment

Cities in the Wilderness: a New Vision of Land Use in America . Babbitt, B. 2005 . Island Press , Washington , D.C. 179 pp . $25.95 (hardcover) . ISBN 1-55963-093-0 .

In Cites in the Wilderness Bruce Babbitt reveals two selves—visionary and pragmatist. Babbitt is committed to making progress toward ecologically sustainable landscapes and, bucking the political trend of the last quarter century, is willing to promote government as a positive force toward that end. He understands that progress is most likely to come through incremental steps and compromise. Drawing on his considerable skills as a storyteller, 9 years of experience as governor of Arizona, and 8 years as U.S. Secretary of Interior, Babbitt makes the case that the federal government can and should lead the nation toward effective long-term conservation.

The book's five substantive chapters tell five stories that illustrate the importance and challenges of preserving landscapes. These stories make the case that federal action is the best route forward toward sustainability. The first, framed by the Florida Everglades, is one of historic federal ecosystem destruction turned around by a recent commitment to restoration. In the Everglades local recognition of the importance of the ecosystem as a source of tourism dollars and protection against hurricane damage combined with national support for an iconic system to produce a political coalition powerful enough to win commitment of billions of federal dollars for restoration work. The second story is that of the Endangered Species Act, told through the saga of the listing of the California Gnatcatcher as a federally protected species. The gnatcatcher's listing threatened to bring a halt to new development until Babbitt's Interior Department, state and local governments, and major landowners combined forces to produce a series of habitat conservation plans that divided the landscape between conservation and urban uses. The third story tells of agriculture in the midwestern United States, where federal crop subsidies have encouraged chemical-intensive fencerow-to-fencerow farming, with devastating environmental impacts locally and hundreds of miles away in the Gulf of Mexico. The fourth story addresses water allocation and water quality, highlighting the close relationship between land use and water resources, and the failure of the federal Clean Water Act to protect minimum stream flows or control nonpoint source pollution. The final story is that of the federal lands, which, in Babbitt's view, should serve public values, most notably the preservation and restoration of natural systems.

These five case studies teach two important lessons. The first, which Babbitt brings out clearly and effectively, is that the federal government is an essential part of the conservation picture across the nation. Conservation problems often spill across state boundaries. Moreover, past and present federal policies are a major cause of ecological destruction. That the federal government must play a key role in conservation policy is not a new insight, but it bears repeating in this era of “fed bashing.” Babbitt, having been both a state governor and a federal cabinet official, is uniquely positioned to communicate it persuasively.

The second lesson does not come out quite as clearly, but it is just as important. The federal government cannot solve the nation's conservation problems on its own. The scale of governance institutions must be matched to the problem. Conservation problems occur at scales from the local to the global. Effective conservation therefore requires the cooperative efforts of national, state, local, and international governance institutions, as well as the private and nonprofit sectors. The trick is to get the interconnections right so that authority matches capabilities, redundancy is provided where necessary, and efforts at different levels of government reinforce, rather than undermine, one another.

Babbitt most directly notes the interplay of federal, state, and local law in his discussion of implementation of the Endangered Species Act. He points out that in southern California the prospect of federally driven land-use planning convinced the state to enact a regional conservation law, the Natural Communities Conservation Planning Act, and the city and county governments to develop habitat conservation plans. He calls for the federal government to use its funding power to provide more general incentives for state participation in ecosystem conservation and open-space planning. As he points out, the Clean Air Act presents states with a choice between implementing programs to achieve federal air-quality standards and losing federal highway funding. Although highway funding sanctions have been politically difficult to implement, the mere threat of them has helped push the states toward compliance. Because roads, many federally subsidized, are a leading cause of habitat destruction, Babbitt suggests similarly conditioning federal highway funds on state adoption of comprehensive open-space planning.

This book is short and lively. It will appeal to anyone tired of the litany of despair and frustration that characterizes so much current environmental policy writing. Babbitt has long been an inspiring speaker; here he shows that those skills translate to the written word. Cities in the Wilderness fully accomplishes the author's goals, which are to celebrate the conservation accomplishments of the Clinton administration, highlight the historic and continuing importance of federal policy in determining the health of our nation's landscapes, and call for a renewed commitment, at all levels of government, to the protection and restoration of healthy landscapes.

It is disappointing, however, that this volume does not do more. In addition to being an environmental visionary, Babbitt is a keen political observer with decades of experience in important on-the-ground conservation battles. Yet he fails to fully engage those skills. More than 5 years have passed since the end of the Clinton administration. Many of the initiatives Babbitt discusses are a decade or more old, and ripe for evaluation with the benefit of that perspective. Many appear to be in trouble. The CalFed experiment in federal-state cooperative governance of waters of the San Francisco Bay and Delta, for example, described as a success in the first chapter, is suffering through an institutional crisis. In the Everglades conflict continues over state water-quality standards and the reach of the federal Clean Water Act. In southern California, the ultimate success of regional habitat conservation planning appears far from assured. Perhaps the problems can be attributed to the current administration's lack of commitment to conservation. Perhaps it is unfair to expect a key participant in those initiatives to view them objectively after just a few years. But Babbitt's many admirers will want to know how he would revitalize and extend the conservation programs whose initiation he justifiably celebrates in this volume.

In Cities in the Wilderness, Babbitt provides the inspiration for a renewed vision of federal conservation leadership. Perhaps in his next book he will supply more details on how to accomplish the goals so well articulated here.