When discussing the “New” and “Old” Wests, few modern thinkers are more knowledgeable, experienced or better versed than Bruce Edward Babbitt.
The son of settler stock, Babbitt grew up on a ranch in northern Arizona near Flagstaff not far from the rim of the Grand Canyon.
A Catholic, he studied at the University of Notre Dame, got a law degree from Harvard, came home to become state attorney general, was elected to two terms as Arizona governor, made a bid for the White House, then served eight years as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of the interior. At one point, Babbitt was among the candidates shortlisted for possible nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Not ashamed — or afraid — to call himself a conservationist, Babbitt is skilled in explaining the intricacies of environmental laws pertaining to water, natural resource protection, endangered species, the impacts of livestock grazing and the legacy of hard rock mining.
While he is proud of his multigeneration Western heritage, he also believes that those who dwell in the 21st century need to have a clear-eyed view of the unspeakable abuses committed against both humans (namely Native Americans) and nature under the Old West fantasy of Manifest Destiny.
Land was cleared of aboriginal tribes and native wildlife to make way for cattle; forests were thoughtlessly liquidated; rivers dammed and polluted by mining waste; tens of millions of bison slaughtered; and predators from wolves to grizzlies were, like wildfire, snuffed out, with little thought given to consequence or cost.
In contrast to Western politicians who still promote a frontier mentality of treating the region as if it were a natural resource colony for distant corporate boardrooms to exploit, Babbitt charted a different course.
He believed in listening to science rather than incantational shibboleths like those contained in the inane “Code of the West.”
The former stockman also had the cojones to hold cowboy culture to account, to correct wrongs committed during earlier eras when ecological ignorance ruled the range. Babbitt, 20 years ago this January, became the first interior secretary in history to oversee the restoration of wolves to the West.
“Bringing the wolves back to Yellowstone was the high point of my years at interior,” he told me recently about the day when he helped carry the first crate of lobos back into America’s oldest national park.
“My personal pilgrimage toward that moment was long in the making,” he added. “For I grew up in a ranching family in Arizona when wolves were viewed as red-eyed devils. Then one summer, while working in the forests on a fire crew, I happened to read Aldo Leopold’s “green fire” essay.”
Leopold’s writing speaks to the guilt and disgust he felt for contributing to wolf eradication from Arizona while in the employ of the U.S. Forest Service.
Thinking back on the impact of Leopold’s confession, Babbitt said, “It was one of those transforming moments, where I began to understand that wolves, like fire, were essential for us and for the natural world. Even then, I could not imagine I would live to see wolves return, much less actually take part in the process along with many dedicated advocates and public officials, of bringing Leopold’s dream of righting past wrongs to reality.”
How stark is the contrast between the Old and New Wests? Only a few hours from now, shortly after 2015 dawns, philistines touting the Old West will converge upon Salmon, Idaho for its second annual “Predator Derby.”
Participants who kill the most wolves and coyotes purely “for fun” will be awarded cash prizes and trophies. Unbelievably, the Forest Service is condoning it.
Meanwhile, only a few weeks from now, those who embrace the New West will gather at the northern gate of Yellowstone to commemorate the 20th anniversary of wolf reintroduction. Babbitt says he still has hope that politicians who dwell in the West’s mythological past will eventually wake up to reality.
Wolves are not the red-eyed devils our ancestors portrayed them to be. Still, one wonders, which West do Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter choose to inhabit?
“We still have a long ways to go, especially in bringing Western governors and state legislatures together as partners in wildlife conservation and restoration,” Babbitt says. “To get there, we must each speak up for the truth about wolves.”