RANGE INTERVIEW with Tim Findley


Assistant Secretary, Department of Interior


     Lynn Scarlett grew up in the hot steel country of western Pennsylvania. Her grandfather invented a method for homogenizing peanut butter and vacuum-packing tennis balls, as well as one of the first air pollution control devices for steel mills. Hers was a success-minded independent family that stressed self-reliance. But Lynn's mother also used to take her out in the gentle meadows, bird-watching.

      What seemed to come of that was a nature--loving libertarian, associated for scholarly years in the capitalist maverick think tank of the Cato Institute. She was an expert on trash and solid waste, researching and publishing from her home in Santa Barbara, Calif., when newly appointed Secretary of the Interior Gail Norton tapped Scarlett to be an assistant secretary with unprecedented access across agency lines in the complex land-management network of the Department of Interior.

       In fact Scarlett, a firm believer in private rights over government control, seemed rapidly to become Norton's eyes and ears in virtually nonstop travel in the vast Interior Department empire managing at least 20 percent of the nation's land. It was a job that would inevitably collide with the bureaucratically entrenched policies of eight years under the contentious former-secretary Bruce Babbitt, and with the wary reactions of many who by then had reason to doubt and fear any government initiatives.

        The road to some new and improved understanding between the West and the Department of Interior was already mined with attitudes that favored confrontation over cooperation with private interests on federal lands, and it was waiting with traps like that in the Klamath Basin when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation seemed determined to destroy its own creation by cutting off irrigation supplies.

        Scarlett moved quietly into crisis after crisis, bringing the authority of the secretary's office to the resistive Interior outposts, and the general promise of an open mind on the issue to the local interests in conflict.

        She inherited a virtual army of sometimes questionable allegiance in the 70,000 Interior Department employees, and yet she faced what some said was a brewing rebellion among the one-in-every-five acres of the United States that Interior controls.

        It is a killer of a job that has worn out many a strong man before her. Yet Scarlett endures with remarkable energy and refreshing honesty. So much so, in fact that some of this interview was condensed and edited for purposes of space and, we hope, your attention to the message of policy from Interior's most trusted expert at it, beginning, as she did, when she found herself cleaning oil-drenched seabirds from a 1970's spill off Santa Barbara.

Start of interview

     Scarlett: One of the things I say as I talk to people about land management around the U.S. is that Earth Day 1970 tended to turn everyone's eyes to Washington, to think that solutions to our environmental problems resided in the national capital. And for the next 30 years, many in the environmental community really looked to Washington as the test of success. That is, "Did we pass a new regulation? Did we pass a new statute?" And what I have argued is that as they turned their eyes to Washington and tried to test their success by which new statute was passed, they missed the fundamental kind of upwelling of individual landowners and others who had already long been good stewards of the lands and who individually and together have really protected much of this nation's habitats. The "old" environmentalism as I call it had its focus solely on Washington, and you could offer them an anecdote here and a story there, but they didn't see it. I was at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] once giving a talk about private stewardship when one of the professors said, "Well, that all sounds great, but are those mere snowflakes on the landscape?"-meaning just one here and one there. And I said to this individual that it was indeed widespread. Landowners love their land, and this nation has decades, if not centuries, of people who have acted as good stewards.

Photo by Katie Irwin

     Range: Yet in the '90s, the green movement announced there was a new "paradigm," as they called it, in Interior Department policy, new priorities and regulations…

     Scarlett: A couple of observations about that; one, there really are two issues here. The first is what kind of relationship would Interior have with people who are on the land, working and growing their families there? And the second is in what kind of tools would we have to ensure that the land is really being managed well? Secretary Norton has put a real premium on trying to reengage, through cooperation, that this shouldn't be about "we-they"; it shouldn't be about deep chasms and divides; and it should not all be about disputes. Rather, we should recognize the value that ranchers represent to communities in utilizing the land and the contributions they have made to this country. We need to work in partnership to solve common problems. Secretary Norton has advanced and articulated a theme of what she calls the "Four Cs: Conservation through Cooperation, Communication, and Consultation." I think there is another I would call capacity building, and that means working with people who are out in the fields and aren't used to cooperating. We need to work on that so that we all understand each other.

     Range: It seems to us that there are some people now firmly placed in the bureaucracy who choose not to go along with a new theme of cooperation that might weaken their authority…

     Scarlett: You know, Interior has 70,000 employees, and we operate in 2,400 locations covering eight different bureaus, not just the Bureau of Land Management. In something that big, there are going to be all kinds of folks with different perspectives and different views. And when a new administration comes in, an important challenge is how do you get the ship moving together in the same direction? How do you communicate, just to get the message out to those 2,400 locations? There are a lot of terrific people in Interior, many who are eager to cooperate, and some who remember an earlier era of cooperation. And there are others who, for whatever reason, have less experience or different training. We're working on that with training that does emphasize cooperation. For some folks, it’s easy, because their natural inclination is to wake up and see the world made up basically of good people willing to work together. There are others who maybe need a little more pulling along to realize that most people want to support their families with a good life and do good things. Most people don't wake up thinking, "Gee, how can I muck up the world today?"

Photo by Katie Irwin

      Range: Should rural folks, then, anticipate that things will be more positive if President Bush is reelected?

      Scarlett: I think we've seen a lot of positive change already. We've gotten a lot of letters, e-mails, and gone to a lot of meetings where folks say, "Gee, you guys are a breath of fresh air; you're meeting with us; we're working things through." I know there are people out there who still feel beleaguered from the last 10 years and who still feel there are challenges, but in every field-grazing, mining, energy and recreation-we hear from people who feel a new positive attitude.

      Range: In brief time, let me run some of those issues by you like a sort of "Rorschach" test for your reaction. Klamath, for example. Is it over? Is the problem solved?

      Scarlett: Klamath is not solved. There are lots of challenges ahead but, again, the Department is trying to turn a page and really work with all the folks for a final resolution. Sometimes the sides seem intractable, and there is a long road ahead. There is a commitment certainly to ensure that farmers are able to farm, and we are working with the tribes to meet their needs, but there is a long road ahead as all the pieces begin to fall in place.

     Range: The Colorado River Settlement.

     Scarlett: I think the 4.4 million acre-foot water quantification settlement with California was a dramatic achievement, because with that came the discipline, if you will, for the state of California to work within the limits of the water agreement that had eluded them for 70 years. Assistant Secretary Bennett Raley spent hundreds of hours just keeping people focused on a historic achievement.

     Range: The forest industry. The Healthy Forests Initiative was not just a fire prevention technique alone, was it? Doesn't it also mean that some people can go back to work?

     Scarlett: These are absolutely combined goals. Of course the central goal is to try to reduce fire risks to communities and restore healthy forest and rangeland so that we will not see more of the catastrophic fires we have witnessed. We also recognize, however, that as we pull this material out, that it has potential economic value and it makes no sense to simply let it rot on the roadside. We have found entrepreneurs who are making the best use of this material to put people back to work, even in places like Hayfork, Calif., that was nearly devastated by the lack of timber activity in the area. Now with the use of a new process that utilizes material trimmed from the overgrown forest, the economy is beginning to expand, people are being employed.

     Range: How about ANWR [Arctic National Wildlife Refuge]?

     Scarlett: Oh, golly. This administration has supported the development of ANWR. It's about a 2,000-acre area that is the focus for potential development. We think that's important because with the volatility of supplies elsewhere around the world it's time for the United States to step up to the plate and meet its own responsibilities. Will it happen? We continue to work with Congress, and we continue to be hopeful.

Photo by Katie Irwin

     Range: The attack on western grazing by environmental organizations like RangeNet.

     Scarlett: The Secretary and Kathleen Clarke, the BLM director, have affirmed very strongly that grazing on these lands is important. It's both historic and it continues to be productive. It's important not only to individuals, but whole communities that center around ranching. A lot of that ranching activity is precisely what has kept those lands wonderful places, so there is a strong commitment to continuing grazing. Ranchers are not only productive contributors to the economy, they're also good stewards of the land. As I noted earlier, the Secretary is committed to taking care of the lands we have and then to reorient the national psyche, if you will, to understand that conservation is not about putting things in federal dominion. The thought is reflected in our budget. In 1999, for example, under the previous administration, there was a peak land acquisition year in which $900 million was set aside to buy land. Our 2005 budget allows for about $150 million in land acquisition, and $40 million of that actually would be part of a proposed potential buyout of oil and gas surface rights within a national park. Even The Nature Conservancy, and I use them just as an example, on the lands it owns, has recently started reintroducing cattle because they see that's better for the land than leaving it unused.

     Range: The really big one in terms of "national psyche" that you mentioned: will the Endangered Species Act [ESA] be revised?

     Scarlett: I don't know the answer to that because I have not had the opportunity to discuss what plans there are for specific congressional action. What I can tell you is two things regarding the ESA. One, again, is much in line with the Secretary’s "Four Cs"- vision. It is a perspective that says, look, real protection of species, endangered, threatened or otherwise, doesn't come from paperwork and lists. It comes from on-the-ground habitat protection and restoration. One of the best ways of doing that is through these partnership programs. That’s why this President has proposed in the 2005 budget a half billion dollars in cooperative conservation grants. If you compare that to the year 2000, it’s about a 300 percent increase. Species protection is about people working in their own backyards, in their communities and on their private lands to remove noxious weeds or repair stream-bank erosion or whatever. Certain conditions around 1970 served as a wakeup call to people who decided we'd better act fast to clean up our environment. They turned to Washington, and they got all these nature statutes: the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Act and on to the Endangered Species Act. They all had certain common features, and I call them the "Four Ps." One, that they tended to be very prescriptive and say, oh, oh, we have a problem and we're in Washington to tell you how to fix it. Secondly, they tended to be very process focused, kind of have a permit, pass go. Third, they tended to be very piecemeal. That is, one species separate from another, this kind of air pollutant separate from that kind, while nature, of course, is more integrated. Fourth was the focus on punishment as the motivator of human action. We've looked at that, and there's no doubt it yielded some improvements. The air is cleaner. The water is better. But at this juncture in the 21st century, when most Americans have worked to produce a better environment for their kids, isn't the best way to achieve good results through encouragement and cooperation, not punishment? That's the direction of the Secretary's "Four Cs." If you look at the Endangered Species Act, and many of these statutes for that matter, you'll find there are sections that would allow having the states take the lead and working with private landowners in solving the problems. No matter what Congress does, we need to look at the Act and utilize it in ways more consistent with cooperation.

     Range: Fair to say, then, that the idea is to steer away from conflict and from the idea that all the answers are with the federal government?

     Scarlett: I think we're trying to do that. I think we've done a pretty good job in steering in that direction, and some of it is breathtaking. Is there more that can be done? Sure. Are there folks in the field who might still feel beleaguered? I have no doubt. I meet them. What I tell folks is that there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. The best I can do is be a good listener and bring that information back to make sure it gets a hearing. I can?t guarantee results, but at least I can guarantee a conversation.  

Though they didn't meet each other at the time, writer Tim Findley also helped rescue birds after the Santa Barbara oil spill.   

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