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©Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library

For all his legendary achievements as a sickly, nearsighted boy in love with the wild challenges still left from the western frontier, and then even courageously leading the charge of “Rough Riders” up San Juan Hill, Theodore Roosevelt was still of the patrician class—born to wealth and power, expected to lead. William Jefferson Clinton came from hungrier roots, with expectations based on earned deals. He would never be rich, but he would become extremely adept at using the wealth of others to his best advantage. What each man seemed to want from their separate centuries of conservation is significant in understanding their methods and their motives.

“Bully!” shouted President Theodore Roosevelt in his exuberance as a dead tree ignited by John Muir himself burst into a cackling blaze spitting fountains of bright orange sparks across Yosemite’s black velvet sky. “Bully!” shouted the president.

They spent the night camped there together, and although they were surrounded at a distance by security officers and aides and the trailing press, none of them ever recorded or perhaps even overheard what talk there was between these two enormous personalities before the morning’s light woke them to find a fresh covering of late spring snow. “Even bullier,” Roosevelt is reported to have said. It was something of the equivalent to “far out,” “awesome,” or “cool,” as some might say today, but no one could ever use a word like “bully” with better meaning than Roosevelt.

Certainly not Muir, who at the urging of friends had only reluctantly cancelled a planned visit to Asia to meet with the nation’s chief executive in 1903 on the question of restoring federal authority over California’s Yosemite Park.

Muir and Roosevelt were not nearly the kindred spirits popular history has led us to believe. Muir, the farmer, the naturalist, was awed by the architecture of nature’s creation. Roosevelt, the rancher, the hunter, sensed the grandeur of life in a perfect setting. As Edmund Morris describes in his best-selling work “Theodore Rex”: “The President was disappointed to find that Muir had no ear for bird music. He was Wordsworthian rather than Keatsian, revering only ‘rocks and stones and trees.’ Garrulous, erudite, and wall-eyed, he talked a pure form of preservation that Roosevelt was not used to hearing.”

What was formed between them would never be satisfying to Muir, who even after the establishment of Yosemite National Park would despair unto his death at Roosevelt’s refusal to rescue the “sister” of Yosemite in the Hetch Hetchy Valley from a series of dams to create a water and power system for San Francisco.

The contradiction was always there between what Roosevelt understood as conservation and what Muir envisioned, with some sad results, as preservation. They were not quite kindred, not nearly perfect in their agreement. Yet with what seems some greater cosmic plan, they seemed purposefully matched for the times.

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President William Jefferson Clinton consciously made it appear to be a light grip on the saddle horn of his gentle horse, but it seemed obvious he was uncomfortable in this mounted photo opportunity at Jackson Hole, Wyo. The former Arkansas governor never made a pretense of being any kind of outdoorsman, unless that included golf, and White House insiders knew that even the sumptuous attention to his comfort at Jackson Hole and Yellowstone was still just a little too rugged for the president’s taste. Clinton had come, first in 1995 and again in the summer of 1996, to make a political show of his touch with the environment.

“We have to do everything we can to protect parks like Yellowstone,” Clinton said prophetically. “They’re more precious than gold.”

Clinton would never get away with a word like “bully” to express himself about it, but unlike Theodore Roosevelt at Yosemite, the 42nd President of the United States found no reluctance among nature lovers eager to be seen in his presence. Within a month of his last visit to Jackson Hole, Clinton would stun the nation, including the entirely unsuspecting Congressional delegation of Utah, by swooping a portion of their state the size of Delaware into a federal lock of national monument status. At the same time he would erase any possibility of the development of the New World Gold Mine on the “backdoor” northern edge of Yellowstone. He had cruised that site by helicopter with environmental advisors in his ear. The designation of Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah wasn’t even that close. Clinton and his Vice President Al Gore chose to make the election-year announcement from a cliff on the Grand Canyon in Arizona, closer to the political reliabilities of his Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt.

Thus did the Clinton administration in its second term begin a race against history to outdo the work of the great conservationist himself, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt might have stood somewhere near that same cliff at the Grand Canyon, in some frustration over opposition blocking him from giving the canyon “Park” status in 1908, but he wasn’t a man to give up easily. Drawing upon the passage in 1906 of a relatively minor piece of legislation intended to stop pot hunters among Indian ruins, Roosevelt declared over 800,000 acres of the canyon a national monument. The canyon would eventually win Park status, and Roosevelt found the little gem of executive authority in the Antiquities Act useful in declaring 17 more sites protected as monuments.

Some 90 years later, Clinton, playing off his mine-blocking and visitor-limiting actions at Yellowstone, would find 21 new regions in need of federal protection as monuments before he left office, totaling nearly four million acres, and, at least in monument status, outdoing the reach of Roosevelt himself.

Both presidents faced, and ignored, fierce but feeble political opposition to their arbitrary actions, especially from regions of the West where the rights of landholders and resource producers were simply swept away. There was, however, a difference between the two chief executives, both as men and as politicians.

For all his legendary achievements as a sickly, nearsighted boy in love with the wild challenges still left from the western frontier, and then even courageously leading the charge of “Rough Riders” up San Juan Hill, Theodore Roosevelt was still of the patrician class—born to wealth and power, expected to lead.

William Jefferson Clinton came from hungrier roots, with expectations based on earned deals. He would never be rich, but he would become extremely adept at using the wealth of others to his best advantage.

What each man seemed to want from their separate centuries of conservation is significant in understanding their methods and their motives.

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In 1907, Oregon Republican Senator Charles W. Fulton thought he had found a way to stymie the land-grabbing Roosevelt with an amendment to the Agricultural Appropriations Act that would specifically place more than 16 million acres of the West under the protection of Congress, shielded from the grasp of the president. “Hereafter no forest shall be created, nor shall any addition be made to one heretofore created, within the limits of the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Colorado or Wyoming…” declared the amendment passed by Congress and sent to Roosevelt’s desk for his signature. Roosevelt let it lie there while, in astonishingly rapid order, proclaiming executive authority over 21 new forest reserves and enlarging his power over 11 more, all in the six states Fulton had specified to be protected. If Congress tried to stop him, Roosevelt let it be known he would simply veto their action. Not until that was done did Roosevelt sign the Agricultural Appropriations Act, still dragging the now-useless Fulton amendment.

It was that sort of arrogance in presiding from his “bully pulpit” over a currently roaring wealth in the national economy that was part of Roosevelt’s enormous, and even disturbing, power. A student of history like Bill Clinton could hardly have missed the implications of such boldness. Yet Clinton and the cabal of authority assembled by him and his vice president also recognized that Roosevelt had carefully handpicked the agents to accomplish his aims.

Chief among them in developing Interior policy for Roosevelt was Gifford Pinchot, a slender, sharp blade of a man who was described by some as almost mystically driven by fierce ideals in his creation of the U.S. Forest Service as a hybrid agency between the Department of Interior and the Department of Agriculture. Pinchot was not a

Muir, the farmer, the naturalist, was awed by the architecture of nature’s creation. Roosevelt, the rancher, the hunter, sensed the grandeur of life in a perfect setting.

preservationist in the mode of John Muir. He saw a purpose and a need in the harvest of forests as a crop and in the controlled use of forest lands for livestock grazing. Even so, Pinchot, an academic elitist who studied at Yale, Exeter, and the esteemed École Nationale Forestière in France had no real trust in the crude agricultural apparatus of the West to determine their own fate. Between what he would propose to Roosevelt and what TR would translate as his favored means of executive authority was clearly meant as a means of controlling the cultural and economic development of the region—at times with the enthusiastic help of ranchers themselves.


Clinton’s Interior Secretary, Notre Dame- and Harvard-schooled lawyer and politician Bruce Babbitt, was no Gifford Pinchot. Babbitt’s environmental idealism stemmed from a coddled childhood on his family’s vast holdings in Arizona and a keener sense of opportunism in using his posture on popular ideas to his best political advantage. More direct than Pinchot, he declared himself an enemy of the “agricultural apparatchiks” of the West, and seemed to mean by that a vengeance against even those in his own family who doubted his place there. Pinchot promised. Babbitt punished.

Nevertheless, the two men played almost identical roles to their patrons in the White House. Pinchot perhaps better understood his place in serving one of the most powerful and popular leaders in American history. Morris in his “Theodore Rex” reports Roosevelt as saying: “Pinchot truly believes that in case of certain conditions I am perfectly capable of killing either himself or me. If conditions were such that only one could live, he knows that I should possibly kill him as the weaker of the two, and he, therefor, worships this in me.”

Bruce Babbitt knew from the start that Bill Clinton could not so easily knock him off. Coming from his own unsuccessful bid at the Democratic Presidential nomination, the former Arizona governor had lined up his ducks as president of the League of Conservation Voters, one of the most potent of environmentalist lobbies, fully capable of turning significant votes and even more important campaign funds to or away from the Clinton administration. So long as the man they called their “Babe Ruth” held power in Interior, Babbitt maintained an extraordinary standing, not at all in awe of his boss.

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If the 20th century history of the West might be said to have begun with the bonfire set by Muir himself on a Yosemite ridge, what lies ahead in the 21st century might still be found in that singular magnificent view. It is well to remember that on that chilly May night in 1903 when Muir and Roosevelt shared a shelter, it had been barely more than half a century since any but a handful of Europeans had even seen the great valley. To most it was still a place as remote and uncommon as the moon..

But now we think we know the moon and maybe even Mars, and from that ridge atop the valley at Yosemite on any day beyond the deepest of winter may be seen a slow-moving clog of visitors helplessly clawing their way among

Illustrations by John Bardwell

the crowd. John Muir should not be blamed, but it really is his fault, and that of the Sierra Club, more than it was that of Theodore Roosevelt. It was Muir and Sierra Club Director William Colby who in 1905 presented the Club’s hopes for the future of a federal park: “The result would be improvement of the valley and National Park by the construction of the best roads, bridges and trails,” their report reads. “Ample hotel accommodations of the best quality would be provided…. The toll road system would be abolished and in all probability a splendid boulevard constructed up the Merced Canyon, which would reduce the time and expense of travel one half and greatly increase the comfort….”

Muir wanted Yosemite to be seen, and yet remain untouched. As controversial in their time as their acts would be, the approach of Roosevelt and Pinchot to conservation was in part utilitarian, taking into account preservation, but also continued use of the resource.

In an Arbor Day message to school children in 1907 Roosevelt said, “We of an older generation can get along with what we have, though with growing hardship; but in your full manhood and womanhood you will want what nature once so bountifully supplied and man so thoughtlessly destroyed; and because of that want you will reproach us, not for what we have used, but for what we have wasted….”

In a not-so-subtle line drawn between exploitative greed and meaningful use, the Roosevelt administration set its pattern for the seeming contradictions between the creation of historic reclamation projects reshaping western lands on the one hand and globally unprecedented acts to protect wild regions on the other. That was truly the marvel and legacy of a uniquely bold national leader. National Geographic years later took account and concluded that Roosevelt had placed under some form of federal authority approximately 230 million acres of the West, or an average of 84,000 acres a day for his seven-year term of office. Federal forest reserves alone increased by more than 400 percent to an area greater than all the Atlantic Coast states from Maine to Virginia and larger than the nations of France, Belgium and the Netherlands combined.

It was astonishing, even epic in the creation of a federal empire worthy of comparison to European conquerors, yet few Americans absorbed in wrenching economic and social changes brought about by the Industrial Age and

approaching world war even noticed. The West remained still something of an open frontier, presumed by most easterners to be “owned” in sprawling wild ranches and endless deserts and forests that surrounded the now-captive Indian tribes. That actual private property in much of the West was in fact a rarity did not seem to occur to the westerners themselves who took for granted the land-use rights established for them by Pinchot and others.

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In 1996, on his second visit to the Yellowstone region, President Clinton made no real pretenses about horses or hiking boots. He rode in a helicopter, gazing down from an altitude that had the effect of blending all the steep and sudden contrasts of the landscape. Some three miles northeast of the park itself, but separated by peaks as high as 11,000 feet, the helicopter circled over the site of the New World Gold Mine, about 90 percent of it on privately owned land spilling into a national forest, not the park itself. Ten minutes, perhaps 15 of flying time was enough for Clinton to make his decision. Whatever it cost the federal government, there would be no working mine there, and the whole region would be included as part of a buffer zone to the “Endangered World Heritage Site” of Yellowstone Park. No longer just a national treasure, Yellowstone now enjoyed the full international protection of the United Nations World Heritage Committee.

Not quite noticed as such at the time, “Babe Ruth Babbitt” and his new team in the Department of Interior had just hit their first long one, and this time they were playing in the truly big leagues.

It had long been a dream among the generations of preservationists who learned from John Muir’s mistake at Yosemite. More public participation wasn’t an answer, it was part of the problem. People and private property needed to be restricted. The time of its formation in the 1930s was a period of political doubt all over the United States, and so it is not so revealing that many of those who formed the Wilderness Society in 1935 were avowed socialists intent on government control of resources. Forester Bob Marshall, considered to be the architect of the group, was even self-revealing in the title of his book, “The People’s Forests.” The 13 directors who formed the leadership of the Wilderness Society without any membership vote were almost exclusively well-educated and well-connected easterners. Something like Muir, they were weekend hikers but, unlike the Sierra Club, they dedicated their efforts less to the experience of wilderness than to the dogged political opposition of entrepreneurs and capitalists exploiting the resource. However subtly it might be disguised with grand views and inspiring wildlife, it was fundamental politics in a fight over whether social freedom included rights to private property.

“Our only rational options are to reject privatization and commercial exploitation of our precious public resources in favor of long-range planning, careful stewardship and protection. We must not squander our heritage or forsake our birthright,” wrote Wilderness Society President George Frampton in 1988.

It was Frampton who coined the term “Our Babe Ruth” when President Clinton appointed Bruce Babbitt as his Secretary of the Interior. Babbitt would reward the Wilderness Society leader, Yale graduate and former Washington lawyer with the post of Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Not surprisingly, it would be Frampton who invited members of the United Nations World Heritage Committee to tour Yellowstone in 1995 and find it endangered by the New World mine, thus circumventing regional and local hearings on the question.

“It’s astonishing that a group of extreme environmentalists can invite a few folks from the United Nations to circumvent laws that Americans and Montanans have worked hard for and lent their voices to,” said Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT) in futile protest. “We have an exhaustive procedure on the books in Montana to decide where mines can and cannot be sited. Why should we allow the United Nations to pick and choose when these laws and rules will be allowed to work?”

Frampton was not the only prominent environmental activist that Babbitt would bring with him into Interior. By the end of Clinton’s first term, no less than 20 key positions administering Interior Department policy were held by former officers and staff members of environmentalist organizations. Eager to produce his personal control of a western empire, Babbitt attempted to establish a National Biological Survey staffed with more than 1,800 new employees who would basically decide the fate of any landholders in the West. Congress thwarted that most blatant attempt, but Babbitt went on, comparing property ownership to slavery in a Rolling Stone interview and declaring, “a new land ethos that would be about discarding the concept of property.”

Not only had Babbitt assembled a new team, he had an array of new equipment and means by which to get the job done, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, and the Federal Lands Policy & Management Act. And, as Babbitt reminded the President, Clinton held a seldom-seen ace in the Antiquities Act, only cautiously put to use since Roosevelt himself, but perfect in that it required no Congressional approval or oversight.

President Clinton never revealed himself to be charmed by bird songs, as Roosevelt did. He had no evident flair for hunting alone or being brought to “bully” exuberance by a bonfire. But Clinton knew about dead presidents, and he loved to hear the crinkling sound they made as folding money.

“I believe there are certain places humankind simply cannot improve upon—places whose beauty and interest no photograph could capture, places you simply have to see for yourself,” Clinton said. “We must use this time of unparalleled prosperity to ensure people will always be able to see these places as we see them today.”

Clinton never saw the Grand Staircase-Escalante. He wasn’t even within a hundred miles of the place when, a month after flying over Yellowstone, he stunned the entire Utah political establishment by taking 1.7 million acres of their state as a federal monument. We may never know if there was a quid pro quo in sealing the region from coal exploration in exchange for scandalously huge campaign contributions collected by Clinton that year from similar coal producers in Indonesia. It does seem clear, however, that much of what Clinton’s administration claimed to be so special about the Grand Staircase was at least an exaggeration—Indian ruins and Anasazi sites no one can seem to find, “hidden” canyons that are well known, species that are so rare perhaps as not to have been noticed by anyone else.

It seems unlikely, in fact, that Clinton himself ever saw any of the 21 monuments he arbitrarily proclaimed between 1996 and virtually his last day in office, Jan. 17, 2001. At least Roosevelt had been capable of writing his own speeches and saying what he thought without the help of spin doctors and propagandists. When he reached for the Grand Canyon in 1903, it was in his own words and from his own experience when he said, “Keep this great wonder of nature as it is…. You can not improve it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

But Roosevelt expected opposition, and in the case of the Grand Canyon he got it in sufficient strength to delay the great conservationist’s attempts to make it a national park, causing him instead to proclaim it a national monument in the first great stretch of Antiquities Act limitations. Among those protesting was the most powerful rancher and entrepreneur of the time on the rim of the canyon, C. J. Babbitt, grandfather of the as yet unborn man destined to be “Clinton’s Pinchot.”

By the beginning of Clinton’s second term, Bruce Babbitt felt supremely confident in his ability to control the fate of the West without accountability to Congress and without any restraints from a president who appreciated the steady flow of contributions from nonprofit powerhouses and corporate shills paying off the environmentalist movement.

Babbitt set out on what amounted to a shopping tour of the West, filling his basket with multiple thousands of acres plucked from here and there. More like a mafia thug than a homemaker, he was out collecting, using extortion and threats for payment. He quickly established a pattern as familiar as a train robbery. First he would call a meeting among the local people affected, often members of his own Resource Advisory Councils set up as a sham of participation in policies of the Bureau of Land Management. Either come up with some legislation of their own that would designate what Babbitt wanted, he told them, or he would be back and take it anyway under the powers of the Antiquities Act.

Babbitt had no constitutional or legal authority to make such threats, but he had a massive bureaucratic apparatus in his power that could make life miserable for any who challenged him. As his tour went on, word that Babbitt was coming to town began to strike cold political terror in the hearts of many western settlements. He would say after he was out of office that he looked forward to someday touring the West again and having people wave at him, “with all five fingers.”

From his own appointed bureaucracy, the Interior Secretary could draw on research and data compiled by their former environmental organizations, many with wish lists of their own. The networking also provided Babbitt with a ready resource of “concerned” volunteers eager to serve on the stage-managed citizens’ advisory councils he set up to legitimatize his grabs of “open” land.

This wasn’t Pinchot, with his ideas of “utilitarian” conservation, or Roosevelt with his often-restated argument that “Conservation means development as much as it does protection.” This was Babbitt as Dillinger or Capone, or maybe Stalin might have been, demanding that it be done his way or else. He had the power to sic wolves on their herds, and he did. He could bust dams that held their irrigation water, and he did. He could cripple their livelihood by reducing their stock permits. Again and again, he did.

“Either come up with something acceptable, or it’s a short walk for me to the president’s office,” said Babbitt.

Yet even with the shills he planted on them, almost no local or regional body thus intimidated by the arrogant cabinet officer and his agents gave in to his demands. Some did try to produce local legislation modified to protect their needs at the same time that it recognized federal authority. Babbitt rejected them all, while at the same time managing a public relations campaign producing poll results from cities not even near the chosen areas. Consistently, the contrived propaganda showed more than 60 percent of “the people” eager for more protected lands and practically begging for Babbitt’s help. One after another, President William Clinton kept discovering new places “humankind cannot improve upon,” and finding exceptional reasons to declare them national monuments.

Stretching not only the intent of the Antiquities Act, but its stated limitations, Clinton cited salmon spawning grounds, giant trees and bats as among the purposes for his action. At that point he may not have seen the monuments and he might not even have read the “scientific” data supplied by Babbitt’s mob to create them.

Talk of a “Clinton legacy” in this was short-sighted. The agenda and methodology of the Clinton-Gore administration was in no way intended to end with Bill Clinton’s eighth year in office. It was assumed, and supported by polls and influence plugs, that the transition in 2001 would be to Al Gore, a second-rate student but son of political prominence, who had staked much of his own political ambition on his posture as an environmentalist. Gore’s own staff had played active, sometimes intrepid roles in the development of Babbitt’s personal tyranny. They were poised to take over for him in a Gore administration that could be expected to be even less reasonable and more ruthless in taking total control over the politically expendable West. How close that came is historic not only for the West, but perhaps for world freedom.

Even so, what had been done could not be easily undone. “It is time the President is subjected to the same environmental rules as the rest of us,” Congressman Chris Cannon (R-Utah) had testified in 1999. “It is clear that the Antiquities Act has been exploited and abused.” It had been meant for limited areas of obvious and exceptionally pristine historic or natural value—the “magic words” of the law’s intent—but, said Cannon, the methods used by Clinton were “deception and trickery” in what many called the greatest land grab in history.

“It’s astonishing that a group of extreme environmentalists can invite a few folks from the United Nations to circumvent laws that Americans and Montanans have worked hard for and lent their voices to,” said Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT) in futile protest. “We have an exhaustive procedure on the books in Montana to decide where mines can and cannot be sited. Why should we allow the United Nations to pick and choose when these laws and rules will be allowed to work?”

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As President George W. Bush settled somewhat uncomfortably into office, the land rights-protecting Mountain States Legal Foundation sued in federal court on behalf of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, an off-road vehicle group, claiming President Clinton had exceeded his constitutional and legal authority by assuming he had unlimited power to proclaim the monuments.

The Bush administration itself, still rife with bureaucratic holdovers from the Clinton years, moved to dismiss the case, and the federal district court agreed with their argument that the courts could not review whether the lands were “of scientific interest,” “historic,” or “of the smallest area,” the ruling said. “It is not the court’s role to plumb the record to see that there is substantial evidence [or] to hold a trial to determine what facts or factors [were involved] beyond what is in the proclamation.”

Babbitt, his minions and his patron Clinton had used the right words, the ruling was saying, and it was beyond the capacity of the court to question their veracity or their motives.

Unless and until the issue is taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court, it means they got away with it, and, even more, it means the West is still up for grabs by those willing to “discard the concept of property.” Hardly what Roosevelt might have meant by “Bully.”

Summer 2002 Contents | Git Home!

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